If there was one word associated with acceptance and commitment therapy, it would be flexibility. Acceptance and commitment therapy has been rocking the medical and educational fields for several decades since its establishment in 1982 by Dr. Steven C. Hayes. The relatively new behavioral therapy method was created within theoretical and philosophical parameters and allows for high levels of individualization.
The empirically-based method contrasts with other popular schools of psychotherapy, such as CBT. It acts on the belief that a person can change their behavior without changing their thoughts. Acceptance and commitment therapy is a conglomeration of mindfulness, value-based, and action-oriented therapies that are targeted at developing and strengthening a person’s psychological flexibility.
Despite being relatively new, ACT is well respected for its evidence-based efficacy in treating a wide variety of mental and physical conditions, such as anxiety, OCD, depression, eating disorders, and chronic pain. Therapists and counselors at Mindful Living Group actively implement ACT when they deem it the most suitable treatment option as it encourages individuals to actively – through conscious awareness – embrace all of life. There are six core processes around which acceptance and commitment therapy are centered. A myriad of methods can be used to strengthen the six processes.
The Basis of ACT and Psychological Flexibility
Acceptance and commitment therapy is particularly unique as its features contrast with those typical of Western psychotherapy. Perhaps the most ground-breaking contrast between ACT and other behavioral therapies is that symptom reduction or elimination is not a goal or focus point. While this may seem strange, the belief behind this is that once a “private experience,” such as thoughts, emotions, or sensations, is labeled as a symptom, other struggles are created. An individual is more likely to begin actively avoiding experiences to keep symptoms from being triggered. Behaviors have the potential to become harmful or impair a person’s well-being and social relationships. Thus, attempting to reduce or eliminate symptoms becomes counterproductive in this modality. Even though symptom reduction, or elimination, is not a goal, it is often the result of the work done through acceptance and commitment therapy.
ACT follows the assumption that humans have a natural tendency to lean towards a “destructive normality” mindset rather than the Western psychology foundation of “healthy normality.” Essentially, the belief is that the standard processes of our minds will eventually create some degree of emotional suffering or discomfort. It is thought that this inevitable suffering is derived from human language and cognition.
Language is more than the words we use to speak to each other; it is public and personal. Speaking, writing, symbols, sounds, music, imaging, visualization, and any form of communicating a message to others or yourself is language. The complex concept that explores language and cognition falls under Relational Frame Theory (RFT), the building block of ACT.
Language and the distinctly human ability to develop deep relational links between stimuli is critical in creating relationships, planning for the future, sharing knowledge, learning from our and others’ history, and thriving as a community. As we know, many great things might tend to have a “catch,” so to speak. This double-edged sword is an impetus for our dwelling on past events that have caused sadness, anguish, or discomfort. Individuals with anxiety, for example, may struggle with fearing what could occur in particular situations and become rigid in routines and places they will or will not go. Change can cause them to slip into an authoritarian, flustered, or aggressive emotional state. Many people struggle with a particular group of mental processes that can contribute to psychological rigidity, much of which hinder us from living our most fulfilling lives.
The processes that have been identified as contributing to mental inflexibility are the opposites of the six core processes that ACT focuses on building (experiential avoidance, cognitive fusion, attachment to the conceptualized self, inaction or impulsivity, lack of chosen values and goals, and inflexible attention). Some therapists use the acronyms F.E.A.R. and A.C.T. to help patients recall the information.
- F – fusion with your thoughts
- E – evaluation of the experience (public or private)
- A – avoidance of your experience
- R – reason-giving for your behavior
- A – accept your thoughts and emotions
- C – choose a valued direction
- T – take action
The acronym ACT refers to the six primary processes that guide acceptance and commitment therapy to assist people with establishing and strengthening psychological flexibility.
How ACT Works
By focusing on building and reinforcing particular psychological processes, we aim to create flexibility. At Mindful Living Group, your therapist will educate and guide you by introducing new sets of skills and tactics. First, let’s look into the six mental processes that may build through the use of mindfulness.
- Cognitive Defusion – Cognitive defusion counters cognitive fusion by bringing awareness to thoughts and emotions to allow the person to perceive them as just that, thoughts and emotions. Defusion helps create a more flexible response to thoughts and emotions; rather than viewing them as absolute, they can be observed through an objective, non-judgmental lens.
- Acceptance – The willingness to accept difficult or uncomfortable feelings, thoughts, or sensations is, without a doubt, easier said than done. However, actively allowing them to come and go – as they naturally do – will help reduce anxiety around particular anticipations. Over time, it might become easier for you to experience an array of emotions or thoughts without them taking control or feeling the need to fight against them.
- Self-As-Context – It is easy for us to create a link between our emotions and/or thoughts to how we perceive ourselves; this can often be harmful. Instead of harboring a particular identity or label a person puts on themselves, they are able to observe how they feel in the present and acknowledge that, like all things, it is constantly changing and flowing.
- Mindfulness And Flexible Attention To The Present Moment – Present moment awareness is promoted by actively practicing mindfulness. Awareness of thoughts, physical sensations, and emotions without judgment or allowing yourself to become swept up in them is beneficial in reducing anxiety, stress, and even obsessive thoughts that are common with obsessive-compulsive disorder or eating disorders.
- Values – Values are unique to each person; they are what or who is most important. Clearly defining your values is a crucial component to acceptance and commitment therapy. Once defined, they act as a guiding motivation and a model when a person is faced with suffering or challenges. Through values, an individual can structure their goals.
- Committed Action – acceptance and commitment therapy necessitate a commitment from the individual. Action is taken in purposefully choosing to behave and work towards personal goals, all of which align with a person’s values.
Because ACT is developed within a philosophical and theoretical framework, how therapists and counselors are able to utilize it as a treatment are numerous and are not restricted by a manual-like format or specific techniques. Protocols for treatment can range from short interventions, individual sessions, long-term therapy, and varying forms of group therapy. Popular methods used with ACT tend to be paradoxes, metaphors, and experiential exercises.
Creativity is encouraged in forming skills and techniques that work for each patient. The flexibility of acceptance and commitment therapy allows the therapy team at Mindful Living Group to curate a specific treatment plan for each person. Patients have an opportunity to work with their therapists or counselors to adjust methods to help them best.
Who Benefits From ACT
Essentially, anyone looking to improve their wellbeing and mental health could reap benefits from acceptance and commitment therapy. Initially, ACT was primarily a treatment option used for individuals who suffer from behavioral disorders, depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and trauma in particular. It is also found that people who have experienced trauma have found significant improvements in their psychological and physical health in response to ACT.
Over time, it has grown and adapted to help people who struggle with physical conditions. It can be used in classrooms and the workplace. It is recently beginning to be incorporated into professional sports.
Time To A.C.T.
There are several resources available that provide guidance to the method of acceptance and commitment therapy. Anyone is able to access these resources via online courses, self-help books, or research. However, if you are struggling, it is recommended to seek the help of trained professionals. Therapists and counselors at Mindful Living Group have undergone – and continue to receive – extensive education and training to serve you as safely and healthily as possible. Because acceptance and commitment therapy utilize skills and techniques of various forms, your therapist may be able to help you uncover and employ the most appropriate skills for your individual needs.
If you are ready to commit to achieving your highest potential and creating a joyful, fulfilling life, contact Mindful Living Group today.