What is ACT Therapy?
Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is rooted in the idea that we should embrace our thoughts and feelings rather than fighting, or dwelling on, them. ACT therapy uses mindfulness skills and a backbone of cognitive behavioral therapy to address mental health issues. Its goal is to improve one’s quality of life by reducing or mitigating the psychological impact of difficult experiences and memories. Unlike traditional psychotherapy, ACT therapy is often combined with mindfulness techniques, a treatment proven to be effective in treating these difficult memories and experiences.
When is ACT Therapy Used?
Psychotherapists are always seeking opportunities to develop interventions and solutions to help their clients overcome mental health obstacles. That’s where acceptance and commitment therapy comes in. ACT aims to create recovery and prevention opportunities to address difficult thoughts, negative emotions, and challenging memories. It was specifically developed to treat mental health issues through skill building, and it proved effective in treating various challenges, both serious and mild, including:
- Workplace stress
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Substance abuse
- Chronic pain
- Eating disorders
How Does ACT Therapy Work?
All humans experience unwanted thoughts and uncomfortable emotions. The goal of acceptance and commitment therapy is to move away from defining those experiences as “problems,” and instead increase your cognitive flexibility when they undoubtedly occur. ACT is a grief therapy technique that aims to reframe difficult emotions, viewing them not as a source of pain, but as a normal part of living a full life. ACT therapy employs techniques like mindfulness, alignment with personal values, and commitment to action to transform the way we think and combat negative thoughts and feelings.
According to the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science, there are six core processes of ACT that provide the blueprint for treatment. Each of the following ACT techniques are psychological skills built over the course of treatment in ACT therapy.
This skill involves embracing your past memories despite how uncomfortable they may make you feel now. In practice, a therapist will work with someone who has anxiety to teach them how to feel anxious, without any hesitation or defense, and let go of the struggle to suppress it.
This technique entails changing the way someone interacts with, and relates to, unwanted thoughts by creating new contexts where unhelpful thoughts can be reduced. There are a few different ways to build this skill, and the overall goal is to decrease fixation on negative experiences.
This is the practice of being aware of the present moment, and is a skill that focuses on experiencing what is happening without trying to judge, predict, or alter that experience. It teaches you to actively encourage a non-judgemental, ongoing description of your own thoughts and feelings.
Self as context
Rooted in the belief that a person is more than the sum of their experiences, thoughts or emotions, this skill focuses on the self outside of any one memory or moment. In practice, this involves bringing an awareness to how different experiences and memories come and go without developing an attachment to them.
These are the qualities we choose to work toward, whether consciously or unconsciously. ACT therapy uses different exercises to help a person make life choices that align with their personal values, while distancing them from making choices based on experiential avoidance or social pressure.
One of ACT’s goals is to help someone commit to taking actions that help them reach their long-term goals. Unlike values, which are at the core of who a person is but not tangible achievements, these are concrete goals that help drive behavior changes over long periods of time.
Mindfulness and ACT
Being able to quiet intrusive thoughts that creep into your mind and focus instead on your surroundings and present moment can help promote a feeling of calm. This is the idea behind mindfulness. When you start to take note of your breathing, for instance, it can help you feel more in control of your body and can even have a positive physical impact — your shoulders might relax and your head may start to feel clear. Studies also find that mindfulness can improve mood, increase positive emotions, decrease anxiety, and improve emotional reactivity.
So what does mindfulness have to do with acceptance and commitment therapy? The ACT approach in this type of therapy is to increase your psychological flexibility by focusing on the present moment and becoming more mindful. Not only is “being present” one of the six core processes of ACT therapy, but imparting more mindful behaviors and responses are important when building more mental flexibility. Practicing mindfulness exercises can also help you discover your values and set goals.
How to Find an ACT Therapist?
When starting your search for an ACT therapist, look for a licensed and experienced therapist or professional counselor who has gone through ACT training. While there is no official certification for therapists providing ACT, mental-health professionals can gain skills in this area through peer counseling, workshops and other training programs. Be sure to ask about their experience and approach during your initial conversation.
There are resources available to help you find therapists trained in ACT:
- The Association for Contextual Behavior Science (ACBS) has a directory of its members who identify themselves as ACT therapists. Be sure to target your search results to focus on therapists in the country from which you are searching.
- You can also contact an online therapy provider, such as Talkspace, to learn more about matching with a therapist who practices ACT therapy. It’s important to note that while these credentials are important, it is also vital to find a therapist with whom you are comfortable working.
If living a more mentally clear lifestyle resonates with you, ACT therapy may be the place to start. Acceptance and commitment therapy encourages people to fully embrace their thoughts and feelings without guilt or shame. It builds up psychological resiliency and can be achieved by building mindfulness skills and through the six core processes of ACT: acceptance, cognitive defusion, being present, self as context, values, and committed action. The best part is that it is proven effective for treating certain mental health issues, and can help you live a more mindful life.
1. Hayes S. The Six Core Processes of ACT | Association for Contextual Behavioral Science. contextualscience.org. https://contextualscience.org/the_six_core_processes_of_act
2. Find an ACT Therapist | Association for Contextual Behavioral Science. contextualscience.org. Accessed September 19, 2022. https://contextualscience.org/civicrm/profile?gid=17&reset=1&force=1