What is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy?

by | Apr 21, 2017 | Therapy

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is an innovative and creative mindfulness-based therapy, which can be seen as part of the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) family, but with very distinctive characteristics. Like Mindfulness, there is a major emphasis on living in the present moment, with a significant importance placed on values, acceptance and compassion. In contrast with the CBT approach (where negative thoughts are brought to awareness and challenged, with a view to altering the emotion) the objective of ACT is to simply be present with your experience, whatever that may be, and not try to remove difficult feelings.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy believes that underlying all anxiety disorders is both an unwillingness to experience one’s internal events (thoughts, feelings, sensations), coupled with a desire and effort to alter the experience of these events, and the argument is that the time we spend fighting and avoiding our thoughts and emotions would be far better spent investing in taking effective action and moving toward valued behaviour.

With ACT, we learn to identify and connect deeply with our core values. Goals can then be defined, and we can begin to make the necessary changes in our lives to align with our values. Mindfulness is important in this process, as instead of getting caught up in our thoughts, we learn to simply observe the experience in the moment with openness and curiosity.

Instead of trying to push unpleasant thoughts away, it is much better to let go of struggling with them, and try to see them for what they are…just words. Likewise, emotions such as anxiety are just sensations in the body, and rather than avoiding ‘negative’ feeling at all cost, why not let them come and go as always, but just notice them, without expending any energy to eliminate these feelings.

To try to always be happy, or never experience unpleasant emotions is impossible

Rather than to be always chasing ‘happiness’, it is far more beneficial to learn to accept whatever experience we are having. Dr Russ Harris (author of ‘The Happiness Trap’) has one definition of happiness, which is quite helpful: “Living a rich, full, and meaningful life, in which we feel the full range of human emotions”. This, to me, captures Acceptance and Commitment Therapy perfectly. Life is difficult and challenging, but if we know and live our values, and try and accept all experiences, then it can be a little easier. To try to always be happy, or never experience unpleasant emotions is impossible, and perhaps even undesirable, as happiness, like all emotions, is fleeting. If we are open to any emotion that pops up, it does not mean we have to like it, but it does mean we do not make it bigger or more important than it should be, by struggling with it, or trying to push it away, or avoiding it.

It is in the struggle with feelings and sensations of anxiety that unhelpful behaviours are born. We become so caught up in our thoughts that we lose contact with what is actually happening around us. Our thoughts then have such a massive impact on our behaviour, that our ability to act effectively is significantly reduced, and this is a space where unhelpful coping mechanisms such as avoidance, isolation, and drug/drink/internet/food misuse, can take hold.

Our thoughts… have been behind every decision, every action, or inaction. They have ruined events, days out, social gatherings, self-esteem, relationships, careers, and caused unnecessary suffering

So, how easy does this sound? Well, for those of us who have spent a long time struggling with anxious thoughts and emotions, this can not only seem difficult, but perhaps terrifying. We haven’t been fighting off and avoiding anxious thoughts and feelings for no good reason. We have been their prisoner for as long as we can remember. They have been behind every decision, every action, or inaction. They have ruined events, days out, social gatherings, self-esteem, relationships, careers, and caused unnecessary suffering. The control they have exerted over us has been total at times, and now the notion of simply succumbing to them can sound anything but a good idea. But, the good news is, this is not what is on offer with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.

Disentangling from our thoughts and emotions

ACT is more interested in whether our thoughts are helpful or not, rather than are they true or false. Do the thoughts we are currently having help us, or keep us stuck and struggling? If we are stuck and struggling in the thoughts, then it might be time to learn to let the thought come and go, rather than dictate how we feel and what we do. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy sees the entanglement with our thoughts, and the subjugation to their manipulative power as ‘Fusion’. We often see our thoughts as coming from us, therefore, they are us. If we come to accept that we are not our thoughts, this would be a very helpful starting point. Our thoughts are not facts, or things that must be obeyed. They are not necessarily important, or wise, or truthful, or threatening. They are just words. Therefore, we need to defuse from them.

With fusion, we react to words like “I’m stupid” as if we actually are stupid, or “nobody likes me” as if that were fact. Defusion is not about removing these thoughts, but disentangling ourselves from an unhelpful thought processes in order to see our thinking as just a story. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy has numerous strategies which are helpful in distancing ourselves from our thought, here are just a few:

1.“I’m having a thought that…”
With fusion, we are so enmeshed with our thoughts that it is easy to be overwhelmed. A thought like “I’m no good”, can be quite distressing. By putting the unhelpful thought into the sentence “I’m having a thought that I’m no good”, it can take the full power out of the story, instantly giving you some distance from the thought. If we go a step further and say “I notice that I am having a thought that I am no good”, it can help with the separation.

2.Naming the thought pattern.
If we worry a lot, we probably still only worry about a set number of things, just to excess. So, there may be many worrying thoughts firing, but they are probably variations of the same ten, say, stories. If we can recognise the different groups, so we can say to ourselves something like, “Ah, here come the failure thoughts” (or the “future worries”, or the “not good enough thoughts”, or the “I’m a loser thoughts”, or the “I can’t cope story”). Once we acknowledge the story, we can just just let it be, without fighting or resisting it, and we can try and put energy into doing something we value instead.

3.Singing the painful thought
This one may sound silly, but it can be very effective. In fact, often an element of play, or light-heartedness can be quite a tonic when dealing with distressing thoughts or sensations. If we bring one of our troubling thoughts to mind, and repeat it to ourselves a few times and notice what happens. Next, in our head, sing it a number of times to the tune of ‘Happy Birthday’ (“I don’t deserve any success”), or say it 25 times in a funny voice. Now say it again in a normal voice and see if it still has the same potency.

Defusion can be a very powerful technique to learn, and if it can be coupled with curiosity and self-compassion, it can go a long was to easing our troubled minds, and simply allowing the unhelpful thoughts at the root General Anxiety, Social Anxiety, or Panic, without the struggle that amplifies the pain.

If we can discover our core values and what is important in our lives, commit to live according to those values, become open to all our experiences, and engage as fully as possible in what we are doing, we will be in a much better place to live a rich, full and meaningful life.

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