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What is ACT?


Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

ACT is a form of behavioral and cognitive therapy that that aims to help individuals develop greater psychological flexibility.

By definition, psychological flexibility means “contacting the present moment fully as a conscious human being, and based on what the situation affords, changing or persisting in behavior in service of chosen values.” In simpler terms, this means being able to act on longer term values rather than on immediate urges and impulses dictated by temporary thoughts and feelings.

ACT is commonly used to treat stress, anxiety, depression, and addiction.

How does it work?

In the ACT framework, suffering is not caused by thoughts or feelings. Rather, suffering stems from being at war with thoughts and feelings – either by trying to avoid them at all costs, or, on the opposite end, being consumed by and wrapped up in them.

ACT incorporates acceptance strategies, mindfulness techniques, and cognitive and behavioral approaches to help individuals change their relationship with unwanted thoughts and feelings, so that they hold less power. This allows the person to instead engage in behaviors that are aligned with their values.

For example…

When somebody is suffering from social anxiety, they may be avoiding social situations even when they highly value relationships and connection. Let’s say they are invited to a party, and they immediately experience negative automatic thoughts, feelings, and body sensations.

  • “I feel scared.”

  • “I am going to look stupid. People will judge me.”

  • “I feel my heart pounding and I’m sweating.”

If they were to act according to thoughts and feelings, they would likely not attend the party. While this might make them feel safer in the moment, in the long run they would not make movement towards their value of relationships and connection. They would likely feel more and more isolated, and would continue to view social events as being something that is too scary for them to tolerate.

Alternatively, from an ACT perspective, they could work towards accepting that social events are something that will naturally cause some anxiety, but know that they can tolerate it.

Many times when people experience a thought, they don’t realize it is a thought. Instead, they hear it as a truth. In these situation, they could practice what is called “cognitive defusion” (one of the strategies in ACT) to create some distance from their thoughts.

Let’s take, for example, the thought from earlier. “People will judge me.” Here are some ways to defuse that thought:

  1. Put the words “I notice I’m having the thought that…” in front of it.

  2. The statement “I notice I’m having the thought that people will judge me” is certainly less daunting than the thought “people will judge me” on its own.

  3. Turn your feared thought into a song or say it in a funny accent. Approaching your thought with humor and levity can often help to soften it.

Think of your thought as just an annoying song on the radio you have to wait out. You’ve been able to tolerate many annoying songs on the radio throughout your life, and you can do the same with your thought.

Practicing these strategies can help a person change their relationship with their thoughts so that they hold less power, and they can move towards their values. In this example, the socially anxious individual could begin attending social events to pursue meaningful relationships.

A final word

If you are wondering if ACT is the right approach for you, please feel free to reach out for a free initial consult.