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What is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)?

Acceptance is a newer therapy that has received a lot of attention in the psychology research lately. Although relatively new, it has been the subject of numerous studies, showing it is effective with numerous disorders and psychological problems.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a mindfulness-based therapy that incorporates elements of Buddhist mindfulness meditation and newer behavioral therapy techniques. ACT is quite different from traditional cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in that it teaches people how to accept and embrace unpleasant thoughts, feelings and sensations rather than trying to control or eliminate them. The rationale behind this, is that a great deal of human suffering is the result of not engaging vitally in life due to trying to reduce feelings such as fear, anxiety, frustration, etc. These emotions are necessary parts of working toward what you hold dear, your values, and to try to avoid them is to avoid those aspects of life which bring meaning and vital involvement. Through this process of embracing unwanted feelings in the service of achieving goals, often the negative feelings are significantly reduced. The paradox is, the more you try to avoid certain feelings, the more they hang around and negatively influence your life. Although a relatively new treatment, there is significant research to show ACT can have a dramatic impact on a whole host of problems, from anxiety and depression to chronic pain and even schizophrenia.

ACT employs six core principles to achieve psychological flexibility:

  • Cognitive defusion: Learning methods to reduce the tendency to 'buy into' harmful or ineffective thoughts, images, emotions, and memories. Rather than trying to change the way we think about things our try to talk ourselves out of our opinions, cognitive defusion helps to give us the choice to just not engage with harmful thoughts. 
  • Acceptance: Allowing thoughts to come, making space for them rather than spending all of one's energy fighting with them. Acceptance also includes acceptance of uncomfortable emotions and physical sensations. By learning to be more willing to tolerate discomfort, actively pursuing what we want in life becomes easier. 
  • Contact with the present moment: mindful connection to the present, experienced with clarity, interest, and devoid of judgment. Rather than giving in to catastrophioc interpretations of what is happening, mindfulness teaches us to connect to the actual reality of the present moment in a way that is more grounded and less painful. 
  • Observing self: Accessing a transcendent sense of self, as an arena where both pleasant and unpleasant events are experienced, but have no power to actually harm oneself. When we have anxiety or other painful internal experiences, it feels as though it is harmful to us if we allow it to be there. Unfortunately this results in trying to suppress or avoid these feelings, resulting in them getting more intense and unpleasant. By recognizing that these painful experiences do not actually harm us, but are just some of many internal experiences we have, it can help us to act in meaningful and not get too embroiled in managing our emotions. 
  • Values: Discovering what is most important to one's true self. Values are our compass, not the promise of pleasant experiences. Every large goal inevitable has components that are unpleasant, or that we would rather avoid. By clarifying values and acting in ways that realize them, we become less involved in unhelpful emotional avoidance strategies. 
  • Committed action: Moving toward value-based goals effectively. This is really about making effort at making our values happen, even when it is difficult, or when we experience unpleasant situations. By consistently building the life we want to live, we move in the direction of being vitally engaged in a life that is meaningful.