What is ACT?
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a model of therapy that uses mindfulness, acceptance, and behavioural change to help you overcome difficulties, focus less on painful experiences and ultimately lead the life you want. The name, Acceptance and Commitment stems from a central part of the model; accept what you cannot control and commit to actions that can improve your life.
A central tenet of ACT is that pain is an unavoidable part of life, but you may exacerbate your suffering by avoiding pain or using coping strategies that make things worse for you.
Often your suffering arises from not being able to accept what you cannot control and not being able to commit to things you value or that will enrich your life. Unlike other models of therapy, for example, CBT which focuses on changing your thought processes, ACT helps by teaching what we call psychological flexibility. Rather than running from difficult thoughts, or avoiding unpleasant situations, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy helps you to notice and accept your thoughts and feelings for what they are, without getting overwhelmed by them, and helps you to move toward the things in your life that you value.
If I have to accept painful thoughts and feelings, will it make me worse?
People who come to me for therapy have worried that confronting pain will make them worse. This is not how ACT works. It is all the elaborate attempts to avoid pain that result in your suffering. You might drink too much alcohol to avoid an uncomfortable emotion, or take a back seat in work as you are too afraid to put yourself in the limelight. Not being able to tolerate the initial uncomfortable sensation results in a secondary pain; excess use of alcohol and not being fulfilled in work.
The idea behind ACT is that you can accept the uncomfortable emotion without getting overwhelmed by it, and then work on the thoughts and feelings that are holding you back. Many times you may want to move forward in your life, but get stuck. You might quit drinking, but lapse after a week or two, or find that you procrastinate over things you consider worthwhile.
So what causes my problems?
According to ACT, psychological inflexibility is at the heart of your suffering and this inflexibility stems from how your thoughts hold you back, avoiding things that you dislike, how you speak to yourself, dwelling on the past or worrying about the future and missing the present moment and the inability to do what you need to do to live the life you want.
How do I become psychologically flexible?
We establish psychological flexibility through six core ACT processes. Aim to be open to all experiences good and bad while doing the things that are consistent with your values.
Acceptance – noting and accepting all thoughts and feelings without getting overwhelmed by them
Defusion – noticing your thoughts without engaging with them too much, or trying to forcefully change them or avoid them
Values – deciding what is important to you
Committed action – having the ability to take the necessary steps to get what adds value to your life
Present moment – aware of what is happening in this moment
Self as context – getting in touch with yourself.
Getting started with ACT
In your daily life you can try FEAR acronym, I shall give a recent example of my own that should help you to use this for yourself.
Last night my thoughts were telling me I was messing up in life and not good at my job, I was feeling like a fraud. Even though I was feeling exhausted, I was ready to open my laptop and complete some outstanding work.
F = Fusion (stuff that goes on in your mind that does not help you)
E = Evaluation of the experience
A = Avoidance of discomfort
R = Reasons for what is happening
Antidote to FEAR is ACT
ACT: Accept your reactions and be present, Choose a valued direction, Take action.
In terms of thought defusion – I try to think of my own thoughts as ‘just mental activity in my head’ to gain distance from them. When you see your thoughts as just mental activity inside your head, it takes away their power and reduces the influence on your behaviour and can act in line with values. In my case, I did not do all the extra work I thought would make me a better psychologist, I took my rest.
Further Reading ContextualScience