Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a relatively new form of therapy. Developed in the 1980s, it has been used successfully for a variety of psychological conditions.
Research supporting its use continues to grow. But what is ACT, how does it work and what are the key benefits?
Keep reading to find out.
What is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)?
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) differs from many other types of therapy. Its primary goal is not to reduce symptoms. Instead, ACT therapists aim to help people accept their symptoms and painful emotions — and to create a fulfilling life in spite of them.
Although ACT doesn’t directly focus on reducing symptoms, research confirms that indirectly ACT is often highly effective in achieving this.
How Does ACT Work?
ACT works by helping us understand why we feel the way we do.
A lot of the work focuses on language — how we talk to ourselves, and others, about the events surrounding our condition, or the ‘stories’ we have in our mind. Breaking this down helps us to recognise any thought patterns and develop an awareness of our issues — and how they’re affecting us.
As well as building awareness and acceptance, ACT helps us find constructive ways to work through our issues. It helps us answer the question:
How can we live our best life, in spite of our condition?
This often involves taking a step back to analyse what we can change and what we can’t.
Where behavioural change is possible, the therapist helps identify changes that can move us “towards” our best self in the direction of our values and what matters most to us. Where change isn’t possible, the therapist will help you work on acceptance and “cognitive defusion”. Put simply, this means changing how we respond to our thoughts and feelings — reducing our tendency to fixate on them. The therapist teaches practical ways to let go of unhelpful worries or negative thoughts and feelings, so that we can be more focused in the present moment.
This is where the “commitment” aspect of the therapy comes in. You commit to stop fighting against your feelings and emotions — instead choosing to focus on practices aligned with your own values and goals.
What Can ACT Help With?
Studies have found ACT helps with a variety of psychological conditions. Some of the most common applications are highlighted below:
ACT tends to work well for anxiety. If you have ever experienced anxiety, you will understand the constant emotional struggle that goes with it.
A therapist will help you accept all of it — the anxiety itself as well as the aforementioned emotional struggle in dealing with it. It might sound counter-intuitive, but it works. Research shows ACT works as well as CBT for anxiety disorders — and may even work in a self-help context.
Research has also found ACT is as effective — if not more effective — than other treatment methods for depression.
Traditional therapies for depression tend to focus on challenging negative, distorted thoughts. This isn’t easy — and can sometimes add to the suffering experienced by people with depression.
ACT changes that, helping you to accept the painful thoughts as a valid part of your experience. This helps you recognise them for what they are — thoughts, and not facts. You can then begin to take action towards the kind of life you want for yourself, despite these thoughts.
ACT also shows promise as a treatment for various addictions.
People with addictions tend to have dysfunctional — often painful — thoughts and emotions under the surface. ACT helps the person make sense of these emotions, bringing them out into the open.
This isn’t an easy process, but it’s important. Addictions often serve as ways to help people hide or disconnect from their pain. When we bring our pain to the surface and accept it as part of our existence, it then starts to lose its’ control over us.
Using ACT to treat psychosis is one of the most interesting applications of the therapy.
One study found ACT was associated with higher symptom reporting and lower symptom believability. Most interestingly, people who completed four ACT sessions experienced halved re-hospitalisation rates compared to those in the control group.
What are the Benefits of ACT?
Aside from its success in treating a wide variety of conditions, ACT comes with the following benefits:
It focuses on enriching the lives of people, regardless of symptoms
Constantly fighting against symptoms can negatively affect your quality of life. ACT recognises this — and strives to improve quality of life, whether symptoms reduce or not.
The truth is, there are always small steps we can take to enrich our lives — even when there are certain aspects we can’t control.
ACT helps people see they are more than their condition or illness. It is possible to live a meaningful and fulfilling life, in line with your own personal values, even if you have a mental illness. This realisation in itself is powerful and often leads to a reduction in symptoms.
It helps us become more flexible psychologically
The six core principles of ACT — acceptance, cognitive diffusion, presence, self-observation, values and committed action — help us become more flexible in the way we think and approach our lives.
Not only does this help us deal with the condition we’re receiving therapy for, but it can help us adapt to further events in the future.
It acknowledges negative experiences are a part of life
We can’t always change what happens to us — and it’s not always healthy to brush off negative experiences.
They are a valid part of our existence, and denying them can lead to even more suffering. ACT is unique in that it encourages us to accept negative experiences as a part of life-changing how we respond to them.
This doesn’t mean we can’t work to change them, where possible. But it does put us in a better position to work towards positive change, as we’re working with our mind — not against it.
There are many types of therapy that could help you on your journey towards better mental and emotional health.
ACT is one of the most innovative and, in our experience, most promising. It can be used to treat a variety of conditions — either on its own or in combination with other types of therapy.
Get in touch to find out more, and to learn whether ACT is suitable for you.