What Is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy?


Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is an action-oriented psychotherapy that focuses on accepting life experiences and committing to staying focused on the present moment. Pain, illness, grief, anxiety, sadness and regret are inevitable throughout life. ACT helps individuals accept these hardships and make necessary changes to move forward by developing psychological flexibility. This allows energy to be used for healing in the present, instead of dwelling on emotions, thoughts, and painful experiences. Dealing with chronic pain often involves grieving the loss of a previous chronic-pain-free life. Many people facing chronic pain may benefit from ACT therapy.

How does acceptance and commitment therapy work?

ACT uses mindfulness exercises to keep the brain calm while accepting thoughts and feelings. Individuals learn to stop denying, avoiding and struggling with their emotions and to accept that strong feelings are a normal response to certain situations.

Individuals also learn how to determine if an inevitable problem can be immediately remedied, or if they simply need to acknowledge and accept the problem. Obsessive negative thinking is replaced with necessary behavioral changes that promote positive physical and mental well-being.

Six core processes

ACT incorporates six core processes to promote mental and emotional flexibility, which include the following:

  1. Acceptance. Accepting is the opposite of avoiding, fighting and denying. ACT therapists provide people with cognitive tools to accept their thoughts and emotions.
  2. Cognitive defusion. Individuals learn to change how they react to their thoughts and feelings. This includes distancing from an upsetting thought and realizing it is simply a thought.
  3. Being present. Individuals should be mindful of the present moment and observe thoughts and feelings instead of judging or trying to change them. Positive behavior changes can occur when events are experienced directly and clearly.
  4. Self as context. The human tendency is to focus on oneself. By using mindfulness exercises to become aware of experiences, people learn to not completely attach themselves to those experiences. They realize they are more than their thoughts, feelings and experiences.
  5. Values. Choosing personal values, such as family, career, spirituality, etc., determine an individual's priorities. Focusing on priorities, even during inevitable hardships, helps individuals avoid negative self-talk and continuous feelings of anguish.
  6. Committed Action. Making the decision to embrace a positive change provides resilience for life’s obstacles. The action of setting goals and being exposed to difficult thoughts requires people to face their fears. This breaks the limitations individuals have inadvertently set on themselves, which ultimately leads to positive changes that align with their values.

ACT therapist

Thorough research should be conducted to find the right therapist. This can include talking with a health care professional for advice. A therapist or counselor should be licensed and experienced with ACT therapy. Although there is no specific certification for ACT, training programs and workshops are available. Individuals should also be comfortable with their therapist in order to obtain the best results.

During an ACT therapy session

During an ACT therapy session, individuals begin by discussing challenges and struggles. A therapist will also need to know about past treatments and if they worked. Individuals will learn to identify areas that cause negative thoughts. They learn to work through hurtful memories and make peace with things that cannot be changed. Values and priorities will be identified in order to make positive changes. The therapist will work with individuals on accepting what cannot be changed and focusing on what can be changed. The therapist will help find ways to integrate this into everyday life.

Additional source: Psychology Today and The Dot Canada

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