What is acceptance and commitment therapy?
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a psychotherapy that emphasizes acceptance as a way of dealing with negative thoughts, feelings, symptoms or situations. It also encourages more healthy, constructive activities dedicated to maintaining your values or goals.
ACT therapists operate on a theory that suggests that increasing acceptance can increase mental flexibility. This method has many benefits. It can help people stop habitually avoiding certain thoughts or emotional experiences that may cause further problems.
Unlike cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), the goal of ACT is not to reduce the frequency or severity of unpleasant internal experiences, such as disturbing cognitive distortions, emotions, or impulses. Instead, the goal is to reduce your efforts to control or eliminate these experiences while increasing your participation in meaningful life activities (that is, activities that are consistent with your personal values).
This process consists of six parts:
- Acceptance: This means allowing your inner thoughts and feelings to happen instead of trying to change them or ignore them. Acceptance is an active process.
- Cognitive dissociation: Cognitive dissociation is the process of separating oneself from inner experience. This allows you to treat ideas simply as ideas without having to consider how important your thoughts are to them.
- Self as background: This involves learning to separate your thoughts about yourself from your actions.
- Presence: ACT encourages you to pay attention to your surroundings and learn to divert your attention away from your inner thoughts and feelings.
- Values: These are areas in your life that are important enough for you to inspire action.
- Commitment: This process involves changing your behavior according to the principles covered in the treatment.
During the ACT, your therapist will help you learn how to apply these concepts to your life. They may teach you how to practice acceptance and cognitive dissolution, or they may help you develop a sense of self that is different from your thoughts and feelings.
The course can also include mindfulness exercises designed to cultivate non-judgmental, healthy awareness of thoughts, feelings, sensations, and memories that you would otherwise avoid. Your therapist can also help highlight moments when your behavior does not match your values, while also helping you understand which behaviors are appropriate.
Your therapist may assign homework to practice between classes, such as mindfulness, cognition, or value clarification exercises. Homework is agreed between you and your therapist and can be modified to make it as personal and useful as possible.
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How can ACT help
ACT may be effective in treating:
Benefits of ACT
One of the core strengths of ACT is its impact on mental flexibility. Mental flexibility is the ability to accept your thoughts and feelings when they are useful, and put them aside when they are not useful. This allows you to react thoughtfully to your inner experience, avoid short-term impulsive behaviors, and instead focus on living a meaningful life.
Mental flexibility can improve your ability to accept and cope with symptoms such as anxiety or depression. Usually, these symptoms may be significantly reduced due to increased mental flexibility.
ACT is sometimes referred to as the “third wave” or “new wave” psychotherapy. The term “third wave” treatment refers to a wide range of psychotherapy, which also includes:
Historically, the third wave of treatment has been considered particularly suitable for those who have not benefited from existing treatments such as traditional CBT. However, it is now believed that for some people, the third wave of treatment options may make sense as a first-line treatment.
Studies have shown that ACT can effectively treat a variety of diseases, including some that span multiple diagnoses. ACT also seems to improve the quality of life. It can help people cope with physical conditions and chronic pain.
Things to consider
Although ACT is an effective treatment for many diseases, research shows that it may be as useful as other available treatment modalities (such as CBT). These findings suggest that people who benefit from ACT may also benefit from another treatment.
ACT has also been criticized for its similarity to other forms of treatment. Some supporters of CBT claim that ACT, like other third wave therapies, does not represent a significantly different approach.
How to start
Many types of mental health professionals may provide ACT, including psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, or mental health consultants. If you are interested in learning more about this method, you can ask your treatment provider’s training background or look for an experienced ACT practitioner.
You can also try a recommended source, such as the Association for Situational Behavioral Science (ACBS) or the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapy (ABCT). ACBS also provides free resources about ACT in the form of videos, audio clips, and mindfulness exercises.
Therapists who have received ACT training are both active and empathetic listeners and active instructors, encouraging more in-depth exploration and non-judgmental awareness during the course.
ACT courses are often hands-on and usually include mental exercises or mindfulness training, as well as homework after the course. Completing these exercises is an important part of the ACT because it is a way for you to learn new skills and improve mental flexibility.
Your therapist also wants to discuss your values and goals during treatment. This is another key part of treatment, because these values will inform your actions.