What Is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)?

There are different approaches to treating people struggling with alcohol and drug addictions. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is one type of therapy that can be beneficial for you as you work your way to living life without using substances. But what is it, and what does it specifically do? Who would benefit from it most?

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is a form of therapy that teaches you mindfulness skills that will help you live and behave in ways that are best for your personal values. ACT also helps you develop psychological flexibility, which we will get into further.

Most individuals have found ways to manage, control, or suppress emotional experiences and utilize them whenever needed. However, when we try to control these types of experiences, we create unnecessary challenges for ourselves, which is not all that healthy.

ACT practitioners help people recognize that these ways in which we try to control, suppress, or manage emotional experiences are not healthy to our overall well-being. An ACT practitioner helps the individual see and address the person’s challenges and works with them in finding ways for values-based actions.

Also, as noted by Psychology Today, ACT can help the person stop denying, avoiding, and struggling with inner emotions and accept that the deeper feelings are acceptable responses to specific situations. This approach allows the individual to move forward with their life, accept their hardships and issues, and commit to making behavioral changes, no matter what is happening in their life and how they feel about it.

The History of ACT

GoodTherapy® writes that ACT is “based on relational frame theory (RFT), a school of research focusing on human language and cognition.” RFT implies that rational skills used by the human mind can solve problems and help them overcome psychological pain.

In the late 1990s, there were numerous and varied comprehensive treatment manuals developed to summarize the ways ACT can be used to treat different mental health disorders. As a result, ACT has been employed in treating people with substance use disorders, psychosis, chronic pain, and eating disorders, among others, and is still in use today in addiction treatment.

What Is the Goal of ACT?

The primary goal of ACT is to create a life that is meaningful while accepting that pain goes with it. ACT is all about taking effective action led by your deepest values while being completely present and engaged.

As we go about our lives, we will inevitably run into obstacles, such as unpleasant and unwanted thoughts, feelings, urges, memories, images, and other experiences. ACT teaches mindfulness skills as a way to handle these challenges and obstacles.

What Is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a term often used in therapy sessions. It is a way of consciously bringing awareness to the here-and-now with interest, openness, and receptiveness. You are fully engaged in the present moment, as opposed to staying “buried” in your thoughts and allowing your feelings to be what they are. You are not trying to control or manage your thoughts but rather acknowledge them, even the painful, disruptive ones. If you face your experiences with an open mind and are receptive to them, they can seem less threatening and unmanageable. Mindfulness changes the relationship you have with these troubling experiences in a way that lessens their impact on you and your life.

How Is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) Best Used?

ACT can be used for various mental health disorders, such as:

  • Anxiety
  • Stress (including workplace stress)
  • Depression
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Social anxiety disorders
  • Substance abuse, and 
  • Borderline personality disorder (BPD)

ACT helps to develop psychological flexibility, which is the ability to stay in the present moment regardless of any unpleasant feelings, thoughts, or sensations, and to choose your behavior based on your situation and personal values.

The Basis of ACT and Core Principles

It might help you to understand what ACT is and what its core principles are. Unlike cognitive behavior therapy, which teaches you how to stop and change unwanted or negative feelings and thoughts, ACT teaches you to embrace them so that you can have a life of vitality and not feel as though you are flawed.

ACT teaches you that a full life is filled with a wide spectrum of experiences, some of which are negative and painful. Mindfulness exercises you will practice encourage you to develop a new and healthful relationship with painful or unwanted situations in your life. Clarifying and defining your values-based goals are components of ACT.

ACT is a therapy that encourages you to accept things as they come, without evaluating, changing, denying, or ignoring them. You will be taught exercises on how to do this.

6 Core Processes of ACT

ACT utilizes six core principles to help you develop psychological flexibility, and they work together toward handling painful experiences more effectively, as explained by an ACT trainer on Psychotherapy.net.

They are:

Defusion: This is a learning method that helps individuals “step back” and observe language without getting stuck in it. It teaches how to defuse thoughts so that they have less of an impact on you.

Acceptance: Acceptance is allowing unwanted experiences to come and go without struggling with them.

Contact with the present moment: Being aware of the present moment and experiencing it with openness, receptiveness, and interest, also known as mindfulness.

The observing self: Gaining a transcendent sense of self, a continuity of consciousness which is unchanging. This perspective provides the opportunity to directly encounter that you are not your unwanted, unpleasant, or painful experiences. Our feelings, thoughts, memories, sensations, etc., change constantly and are not the essence of us.

Values: Learning what is most important to you, what type of person you want to be, what is meaningful to you, what you stand for most in your life.

Committed action: You set goals according to those values and carry them out purposefully to enhance a meaningful life.

What Are the Differences and Similarities Between the 3 Therapy Types?

The three main types of therapy are cognitive behavior therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, and acceptance and commitment therapy. Below we explain how they are different and similar.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT is the foundation of both dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). CBT’s primary focus is to encourage mindfulness with thought and behavior processes. It works by acknowledging negative thoughts and perceptions and then reframes them to change behavior. An example would be to identify a negative thought and then develop strategies, like hypnosis, relaxation training, or desensitization, to correct the thinking about the negative thought.

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT): DBT also focuses on behavior but includes a social aspect. It works by accepting the negative thought patterns and talking through them with a counselor and people in your support network who can provide new directions for negative feelings and behaviors. It’s a very collaborative process. Past problems and emotions are discussed, and a new strategy for working them out evolves to improve quality of life.

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT): ACT’s main focus is to take action toward painful emotions and behaviors. It emphasizes acceptance of your feelings, acceptance of yourself, and committing to change behavior. This type of therapy can help you stop denying, suppressing, or avoiding painful experiences. You accept who you are and what you are feeling and commit to changing negative behavior.

ACT might be a good form of therapy for you as you work toward a better quality of life that does not include misusing or abusing drugs or alcohol.

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