Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

ACT Supports Positive Change

Perhaps you’ve seen a bumper sticker or an Internet meme: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” This perspective is at the heart of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT; pronounced as the word “act”). We will all experience difficult times and stressful experiences in our lives. It’s normal to be sad about being sad or worried when your body is in a panic; however, when we start doing things to avoid our thoughts or feelings, normal emotional pain becomes something more: suffering.

ACT is built on the idea that the energy you devote to avoiding or controlling upsetting thoughts, painful feelings, or unwanted memories can contribute to psychological suffering. For example, you might avoid a situation because you fear that a memory of a past trauma will be triggered. Or, you might work hard to control a social interaction because of worry you’ll be rejected or judged harshly by others. Or, you might avoid enjoyable activities when depressed, opting to wait until you feel better to pursue your interests.

This control or avoidance often feels good in the short-term, but in the long-term you may begin to feel stuck. Suffering is like psychological quicksand. It occurs when we push away emotional pain and do things to escape its experience. As with quicksand, the more we struggle against our thoughts and feelings the deeper we tend to sink into them.

ACT is designed to help get you out of your mind and into living your life. ACT is oriented toward helping you stop trying to win the fight with your thoughts or feelings. ACT is focused on moving you from a place of suffering to a place of engagement with the things in your life that are important to you.

The Philosophy Behind ACT May Seem Familiar

The philosophical underpinnings of ACT are not new. For example, in Man’s Search for Meaning, Dr. Viktor Frankl, who was a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, wrote about “our power to choose our response” because “in our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer talks about accepting the things we can’t change, having the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference. ACT is in keeping with these ideas. It is also a form of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), is rooted in mindfulness, and is an evidence-based practice.

The Key Elements of ACT

The ACT acronym explains the key elements of this type of therapy:

  • Accept your thoughts and feelings. ACT teaches skills to embrace your thoughts and feelings, particularly the unwanted ones like worry, sadness, guilt, or inadequacy. This willing engagement with your internal experience helps reduce your struggle with your uncomfortable thoughts and feelings.
  • Choose what you want to do. What really matters to you? ACT helps you better identify what you stand for in life so that you can choose to move forward in a way that is consistent with what you want your life to be about.
  • Take action on your choices. Having identified what’s most important to you, ACT helps you make consistent moves toward your values. There is a difference between you as a person and the thoughts and feelings you have. Accepting your thoughts and feelings, knowing what matters to you, and moving toward it helps you live your most meaningful life.

ACT recognizes that behavior doesn’t have to depend on thoughts or feelings. This can feel counterintuitive at first. For example, you might want to avoid a family gathering because you’re worried about a confrontation with a parent. Through ACT, you can begin to understand that you can choose to go even though you feel anxious. Thoughts are just thoughts and feelings are just feelings – not facts – and they will pass. With ACT you can start to gain more clarity about your personal values and commit to change by choosing to act in accordance with them.

By helping you learn to accept, choose and take action, ACT can be a powerful tool to overcome negative thoughts and feelings and improve your well-being. ACT is about treating more than just your symptoms. ACT is about treating you, the person who has the symptoms bringing you to treatment.

If you are interested in accepting yourself and others with compassion, choosing valued directions for your life, and committing to action leading you in these valued directions I invite you to call or email me to discuss the challenges you are facing, and how we can work together to help you meet your goals.