What is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)?

The crises of human life can leave any of us mentally broken, making it hard to cope with difficult situations and emotional upsets.

Access to mental health support networks and a trained therapist can help us move on from our stressful state and live a balanced and satisfying life.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is one such therapy that helps people enjoy life without being burdened by the past.

This brief introduction to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) will help you understand why it works and how you may use it to win the inner battle to heal yourself.

Simplest Guide to Acceptance Commitment Therapy
Simplest Guide to Acceptance Commitment Therapy

What is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)?

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a type of psychotherapy that teaches people to be mindful in the present moment and accept their thoughts and feelings without judgment. It uses mindfulness, acceptance, and commitment to behavior change as strategies to increase psychological flexibility.

Who Created Acceptance and Commitment Therapy?

Steven C. Hayes created Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in 1986 in reaction to how psychology was interpreting the experience of suffering and pain. At the time, it was widely held that one should avoid or mitigate suffering and mental pain for a happy life. Hayes presented ACT as a way to accept suffering and move through it to come out stronger.

What Are The Six Principles of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy?

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) has the following six principles:

1. Cognitive Defusion: To Defuse or Resolve The Past

Defusion means we can “step back” and witness our thoughts as bits of language describing fleeting private events.

At this stage of therapy, the person who is haunted by a past event learns to let go of all negative and non-productive thoughts related to that particular event.

The therapist gradually distances the person from their painful history by modifying their belief and memory systems.

When we defuse our thoughts without becoming enmeshed in them, they lose their power over us.

Instead of thinking, ” I am an idiot,” the person learns to tell themselves, “I am having the thought that I am an idiot.” This creates a distance from the thought and makes it less impactful.

2. Acceptance: To Accept The Present Reality

Acceptance: making room for unpleasant feelings, sensations, urges, and other private experiences; allowing them to come and go without struggling with them, running from them, or giving them undue attention. – Russel Harris, expert ACT Trainer

Acceptance involves not trying to get rid of one’s recurring negative feelings, but simply allowing them to come and go without resistance or attachment.

During this stage of therapy, the therapist trains the patient to allow pessimistic thoughts and feelings to pass through the mind without stopping them.

This acceptance helps in overcoming grief/past and viewing it as an observer to go forward in life.

3. Contact With The Present: To Live The Present Moment With Full Awareness

Contact with the present moment involves paying full attention to one’s present-moment experience with openness, curiosity, and receptivity.

This is the stage when the therapist trains the person to live in the present moment, focusing on and fully engaged in whatever they are doing.

The patient learns to be aware of their surroundings and to focus on the actions and thoughts that are taking place at the time.

They become more curious and open to the present moment, embracing their current life. They accept the past without any negative feelings about it bothering them in any way.

4. The Observing Self: Becoming Aware of A Transcendent Self.

Accessing The Observing Self involves gaining awareness of a transcendent sense of self.

This self is unchanging, omniscient, and unassailable. As a result, it prevents us from feeling threatened, terrified, or turned away by any thought that crosses our minds.

Becoming the observing self allows us to immediately experience that we are not our thoughts, feelings, memories, sensations, images, or physical body.

5. Values: Personal Code of Conduct.

Values are personal beliefs that motivate people to act a particular way. They guide our behavior. Individuals are likely to adopt the values with which they were raised.

Identifying our values entails establishing what is most important to us, who we want to be; what is important and relevant to us; and what we want to stand for in this life.

6. Committed Action: Action Dedicated to Fulfilling Goals,

Committed Action is setting up value-guided goals and then taking effective action to achieve them.

What is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Used For?

ACT is a modern psychotherapy with a strong scientific foundation. Depression, OCD, occupational stress, chronic pain, the stress of terminal cancer, anxiety, PTSD, anorexia, heroin abuse, marijuana abuse, and even schizophrenia have all been shown to be effective with ACT.

Here are some uses and benefits of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT):

  • ACT helps people process their negative experiences and difficult emotions.
  • ACT instills mindful awareness in people who are mentally stuck in pessimism.
  • ACT helps people realize their true potential and work at it to its fullest extent.
  • It helps people outgrow their traumatic past and focus on living in the present.
  • It helps revivify a person who has become hopeless as a result of past life events.
  • It modifies a person’s behavior and thoughts to help them become more accepting.
  • It helps people break the cycle of overthinking their problems and live meaningful lives.
  • It can help people with chronic medical issues live more value-based and stress-free lives.

How ACT Works (6 Steps)

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) treats people in 6 steps:

  • Step 1: Psychologically being present in the current moment.
  • Step 2: Detaching oneself consciously from the distressing past.
  • Step 3: Accepting the entry and exit of pain and struggle without getting held back.
  • Step 4: Observing oneself in its entirety by practicing mindfulness consciously.
  • Step 5: Standing by the values one wants to live by.
  • Step 6: Remaining committed to acting on the values one wishes to stick to.

People learn to overcome and face and embrace their fears and express high levels of commitment to change by the end of therapy.

Advanced Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: A Guide for Practitioners

What Self-Kindness Really Means? How To Have More of It?

How long does Acceptance & Commitment Therapy last?

ACT can treat anxiety, physical illnesses, dissociative and mood disorders, suicidal tendencies, schizophrenia, and phobias, each of which takes a different amount of time to treat.

Moreover, the length of therapy is decided by the responsiveness of the person receiving therapy.

Ultra-Brief Therapy

ACT that lasts half an hour or so is generally referred to as Ultra-Brief Therapy. Ultra-Brief Therapy treats psychological aberrations that are very minor in nature.

Brief Therapy

Psychological conditions like schizophrenia that are more chronic get treated through ACT in four hours of time. Depending on the requirement, the therapist may decide to split these four hours into one or two-hour sessions. We term such short-duration sessions as Brief Therapy owing to the nature of the same.

Medium-Term Therapy

Some psychological issues require an extended therapy period, which may be around eight hours or more. These may be characterized by chronic pain and are referred to as Medium Term Therapy.

Long-Term Therapy

ACT that goes on for over 80 hours is usually referred to as Long-Term Therapy. Long-term therapy is typically given to people who suffer from severe personality disorders.

Mindfulness As A Therapy Technique in ACT

How can we understand mindfulness from a therapeutic angle in ACT?

Mindfulness is being mindful or aware of oneself, both at physical and mental levels, in the present moment.

Being mindful of one’s physical self relates to the feelings of the physical body, like pain, uneasiness, or tightness. Being mindful of one’s mental self relates to thoughts and emotions.

Then there is the third ‘self’, called the observing self. This offers a focused and undistracted view of one’s own mental and physical sides.

In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, observing can also be referred to as mindfulness or non-attached present awareness.

Self-Awareness in its purest form makes it possible for people to observe their feelings (felt through the five senses). It allows us to interpret the origin and meaning of thoughts while letting them pass through our minds.

Recommended book: What Makes You Stronger: How to Thrive in the Face of Change and Uncertainty Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy — Louise Hayes, Joseph Ciarrochi, Ann Bailey.

Final Words

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy teaches people to be psychologically flexible. It helps people to succeed against the inner battle that is based on their past experiences.

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Author Bio: Researched and reviewed by Dr. Sandip Roy. His expertise is in mental well-being, positive psychology, narcissism, and Stoic philosophy.

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When it comes to mental well-being, you don't have to do it alone. Going to therapy to feel better is a positive choice. Therapists can help you work through your trauma triggers and emotional patterns.