If you’re looking for a therapist, you may find the variety of therapies absolutely overwhelming. Therapy is a field with a long history, and it shows. Look long enough, however, and you’ll start to see some of the major players stand out: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectal Behavior Therapy (DBT), and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) are just a few of the more popular choices.
A relative newcomer to the field of therapy is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT, usually pronounced as “act”). This post will be giving you a brief overview of what ACT is, how ACT helps improve psychological functioning, and some of the techniques used by ACT therapists.
ACT was developed in the 80’s by psychologist Steven Hayes, as a natural outgrowth of previous therapy movements. Many other therapies are centered on identifying thoughts and feelings and coming up with ways to keep the “positive” emotions (joy, love, gratitude, for example), and eliminate the “negative” emotions (things like anxiety, depression, or anger).
ACT takes a slightly different approach. Rather than treating emotions or thoughts as “good” or “bad,” ACT works with clients to accept all emotions or thoughts as they are and looking at how these can be emotions and thoughts can be used in the pursuit of a meaningful value-filled life.
How Does ACT Work.
ACT utilized a variety of interventions to target particular processes. This is summed up in what’s known as the “Hexaflex”:
Let’s look at what each of these processes mean:
- When we let thoughts or emotions control or dominate our actions, this is a process known as “fusion.” We can fuse with certain beliefs or ideas, and we lose perspective on how these things control us. By building a client’s ability to recognize thoughts and emotions as objects or neutral signals, ACT promotes a client’s ability to “defuse” from difficult situations, and to make values-based choices.
- Acceptance reflects our ability to accept the presence of all emotions and thoughts as they arise. This is not the same as agreeing with these thoughts or saying that they’re necessarily true. Instead, clients are able to accept the feeling as present, and then decide how to use it effectively.
Contact With the Present Moment.
- When we get lost in difficult thoughts and emotions, we lose our ability to be present in our own lives. This can lead to feelings of disconnection and isolation. ACT therapists work with clients on specific skills to reorient themselves, recognize what’s happening, and reconnect with who or what’s right in front of them.
- Values are abstract concepts that stand for what’s important to us. These are principles like family, honesty, integrity, and love, for example. Clients in ACT will work with their therapist to identify the values that mean the most to them and prioritize the things that matter most in life. Everyone has different values, and a good ACT therapist will help draw out those that are most important to you.
- Committed Action refers to our ability to make choices based on our values and identify concrete things we can do to better live by these values. ACT involves setting specific goals, collaborating on action steps, and ensuring that our choices accurately reflect the kind of person we strive to be.
- By gaining distance from difficult thoughts and emotions, clients are taught how to recognize that they themselves are more than the thoughts and stories that show up in their brain. Clients are empowered to step away from old notions of who they are, and in doing so they are able to reconnect with their “true” selves.
Phew. That’s a lot. So how do ACT therapists enable clients to engage all of these processes we just listed? Here are just a few.
- If you’ve stepped into the therapy world at all, you’ve probably heard the word “mindfulness” thrown around a lot, and it can often mean different things depending on who you ask. ACT utilizes mindfulness as a way to inspire curiosity about one’s thinking and feelings, without being “dragged away” by them. Clients are taught how to slow down their thinking, enhance their natural powers of observation, and reconnect with the present moment when they sense themselves drifting.
- ACT Clients are taught specific techniques to create distance from the thoughts their brain comes up with. Some of these include describing a thought’s “color” and “shape” if it had one, imagining a feeling as an object that can be picked up and held, and repeating difficult thoughts to yourself in different voices and from different perspectives. Some of that may sound strange, and maybe it is, but it has proven effectiveness in helping clients not feel controlled by thoughts and emotions as those things show up.
- Oftentimes, when we experience difficult thoughts or feelings, we tend to judge ourselves. “I hate how anxious I get,” “I’m such a loser for always thinking this way,” or “it’s my fault that everything is this bad, and it will never get better.” We are often better at being kind to others than we are to ourselves. ACT Clients are taught how to show themselves that same kindness, and how to not judge themselves so relentlessly for thoughts and feelings that are generally outside their control.
- “SMART” is an acronym that generally stands for “Specific, Measurable, Adaptive, Realistic, and Time-Framed.” Clients are far more likely to achieve their goals if they’re SMART. “I want to exercise” is a goal. “I will exercise twice a week, at home or at the gym, for at least 20 minutes” is a SMART goal.
These are just a few of the methods that ACT therapists have come up with to target the six core processes. However, one of the best things about ACT is that it is incredibly adaptable, and there are as many techniques as there are ACT therapists.
I hope this brief overview of Acceptance Commitment Therapy has been helpful. There are an increasing number of books and articles on ACT at this point, for both clients and therapists, if you’re interested in learning more. Done correctly, ACT can be an incredibly powerful tool in directing clients towards a more meaningful life, where clients can feel empowered, liberated, and whole.
If you think this might be helpful, please let us know. Sam would love to help you in your journey to the life you want. To learn more about Sam, please see our about page https://upstaterestorativecounseling.com/about/