Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is a form of cognitive behavioral therapy that was created by Dr. Steven Hayes in the late 1980s. Its goal is to help people accept their feelings, thoughts, and actions, and to commit to actions that align with their values. ACT has been proven effective in treating a wide range of mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, PTSD, and borderline personality disorder.
In this article, we’ll explore what ACT is and how it differs from other forms of therapy. We’ll also look at 6 core processes of ACT: acceptance, committed action, cognitive defusion, mindfulness and self-observation, and values and self as context.
The Big Idea
The big idea is that ACT is a form of cognitive behavioral therapy. It uses mindfulness to help people stay in contact with the present moment and disengage from unhelpful thoughts and emotions.
ACT focuses on acceptance, meaning accepting your feelings and thoughts as they are without trying to change them. For example, if you are feeling anxious about something in the future, you might try to push away those feelings by telling yourself, “Don’t be anxious; everything will be fine.” But this can make things worse because it only feeds into your anxiety. Instead, ACT suggests that you accept your feelings as they are (even if you don’t like them) and focus on how you want to act in the present moment instead of worrying about the future or past.
A key concept in the ACT is commitment: committing yourself to do what’s right for you right now even though it may be difficult or cause discomfort or pain. Commitment sounds like an obvious thing to do but many people find it difficult — either because they’re afraid of losing control over their lives or they don’t believe that doing what’s right will make them happy in the long run.
ACT focuses on what it calls “the three pillars” of healing: accepting your pain, suffering, and uncontrollability; committing yourself to meaningful, positive goals; and building an ongoing mindfulness practice.
The therapy helps clients understand that they have more control over their lives than they may think. Rather than trying to change negative thoughts, ACT helps people accept them as part of who they are — not as facts about the world around them.
6 core processes of ACT
ACT emphasizes six core processes: acceptance, cognitive defusion, contact with the present moment, self as context, values-based action, and committed action (see below). These processes are used to help clients develop psychological flexibility — the capacity to adaptively navigate life’s demands while maintaining one’s values and commitments.
Acceptance: Acknowledging what is happening while being open to experiencing it fully without judging it as good or bad; being willing to feel whatever comes up.
Committed action: Acting purposefully within your values system in order to solve problems or create change; taking steps toward living according to your values despite obstacles.
Cognitive defusion: Recognizing thoughts as just thoughts without attaching any meaning or belief to them; not thinking about the same thing over and over again when this would serve no purpose except creating further stress or anxiety.
Mindfulness and self-observation: Mindfulness means paying attention to what’s happening in the present moment with an attitude of curiosity, openness, and receptivity. We can practice mindfulness by focusing on our breath or body sensations or through mindful walking or eating exercises.
Self-as-Context: Self-as-context refers to seeing yourself as part of everything else in the world rather than seeing yourself as separate from it. This allows you to see yourself as a whole person instead of just focusing on your thoughts or feelings at any one time.
Values: Values are the cornerstone of ACT. They are the principles that guide your behavior and the values that you hold dear. They are the source of your motivation and the source of your strength. When you begin to embody the values that are important to you, you’ll find that they give you the strength to continue making progress.
Ultimately, you can think of ACT as a way to simplify life. Instead of struggling and worrying about the things you can’t control, focus on living life with purpose and fulfillment in the here and now. As long as you keep a positive attitude, you should find that events that used to bother you will just roll off your back. In other words, accept them, commit to your values, and move on. It’s not always easy, but the benefits may be worth it!