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An image of a person in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy) is a specific form of psychotherapy emphasizing acceptance as an effective method for coping with negative feelings, emotions, symptoms, and circumstances.

Acceptance and commitment therapy also promotes further commitment to constructive activities in line with your goals and values.

Therapists practicing ACT assume that increasing acceptance can encourage improved psychological flexibility. The concept of psychological flexibility involves accepting your thoughts and emotions rather than struggling against them, and then acting on longer-term values instead of being driven by short-term impulses. Today’s guide outlines the many benefits of ACT therapy.

What is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy?

Psychologist Steven C. Hayes developed acceptance and commitment therapy, sometimes abbreviated to acceptance commitment therapy or ACT, in 1986. Hayes developed ACT while a professor at the University of Nevada. ACT is grounded on ideas stemming from Hayes’s personal experience of panic attacks.

ACT is an action-oriented psychotherapy model rooted in both cognitive behavioral therapy and traditional behavior therapy.

Working closely with a therapist, you will discover how you can stop denying, avoiding, or struggling with painful inner emotions. Your therapist will encourage you to accept those feelings as healthy responses to situations rather than viewing the feelings as stumbling blocks.

Equipped with this understanding, you should begin to accept challenges and hardships more readily.

The commitment aspect of acceptance involves doubling down and making the required behavioral changes while tolerating life’s blips more robustly. ACT therapy helps you to achieve this regardless of external circumstances or internal feelings.

This form of behavioral therapy, then, combines the practice of self-acceptance with mindfulness techniques. Your commitment is central to increased acceptance of thoughts and feelings.

Research shows that acceptance and commitment therapy can help alleviate the symptoms of GAD (generalized anxiety disorder). Researchers strongly recommend ACT for older adults diagnosed with GAD.

Additionally, ACT can be used to treat the following conditions:

What to Expect in ACT Therapy

Acceptance-based therapy will consist of you working with a therapist one-to-one. You will discover how to listen to your self-talk. Self-talk is the way you speak to yourself, specifically concerning challenges like:

  • Traumatic events
  • Physical limitations
  • Problems with interpersonal relationships
  • Life challenges

Armed with this understanding, you can determine whether a problem calls for immediate action and change, or whether you should accept it for what it is while making behavioral changes to improve the situation.

You may share strategies with your therapist that have not worked in the past. That way, your therapist can help you prevent repeating patterns of thinking and behaving that cause long-term problems.

When you reach a point in ACT therapy where you have faced and accepted the current challenges in your life, you make a firm commitment to do the following:

  1. Stop fighting the past.
  2. Avoid fighting your emotions.
  3. Start practicing more confident, positive behavior aligned with your goals and personal values.

A good therapist will help you to develop and enhance your psychological flexibility. This ability will help you to more easily shape your thoughts and your behaviors so that they better reflect your goals and personal values. This is achieved through the six core processes of ACT outlined below.

The theory underpinning acceptance and commitment therapy is that it’s counterproductive trying to control distressing psychological experiences or emotions. ACT therapy contends that suppressing those feelings triggers more stress long-term. According to the principles of acceptance and commitment therapy, you have valid alternatives to changing the way you think, including:

  • Attention to your personal values.
  • Mindful behavior.
  • Commitment to taking appropriate action.
  • Accepting those psychological experiences and emotions instead of fighting against them.

By engaging with acceptance and commitment therapy, you can learn how to change your attitudes and your emotional states.

The process of acceptance and commitment therapy involves the following steps:

  • Acceptance
  • Being present (mindful)
  • Cognitive defusion (distancing)
  • Self as context
  • Values
  • Committed action
An image of two people in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

Acceptance

Through developing the skill of acceptance, you’ll discover how to acknowledge and accept the full range of your emotions and thoughts.

Acceptance will help you to stop avoiding, denying, or trying to change those emotions.

Being present (mindful)

Acceptance and commitment therapy sessions can include mindfulness exercises. Through these exercises, you can develop a healthy awareness of:

  • Feelings
  • Thoughts
  • Memories
  • Sensations

You will learn to focus on the present moment rather than probing the past or projecting into the future. You can achieve this without avoidance, though.

The more you learn how to experience events without judgment, the more effectively you can make the required behavioral changes to enhance the situation.

Cognitive defusion (distancing)

The concept of cognitive defusion involves changing how you react to distressing feelings and thoughts by using self-distancing techniques.

Self-distancing techniques include:

  • Observing thoughts without passing judgment.
  • Identifying and labeling your automatic responses.
  • Singing your thoughts.

Self as context

The idea of self-as-context builds upon the concepts of self and identity. According to the premise of self-as-context, you are more than your feelings, thoughts, and experiences.

Values

You will work on choosing personal values in different areas and then attempting to behave in alignment with those values, instead of being driven by impulse or the desire to avoid any form of distress.

Committed action

By taking concrete steps to make positive changes in line with your core values, you will be taking committed action. This could include:

  • Exposure to challenging emotions and experiences
  • Developing skills
  • Goal setting

How Many Sessions is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy?

If you choose to engage with acceptance and commitment therapy, treatment typically involves between 8 and 16 weekly sessions. Sessions last for 50 minutes.

In some cases, session length and frequency may be adjusted to accommodate more intensive treatment.

You should regularly review your treatment progress with your therapist to check that you are meeting your goals. As therapy progresses, the therapist may space the sessions more widely, allowing you time to implement the skills you learn in real-world settings.

ACT Psychotherapy

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is grounded on relational frame theory. According to this theory, the human ability to relate is foundational to language and cognition.

While it can be beneficial to relate – relating the word pizza to the experience of a tasty meal, for instance – it also means you can relate negative thoughts and judgments about yourself. Those suffering from depression, for example, often relate the word worthless to areas of their life with destructive outcomes.

One of the primary benefits of ACT is the way it helps strengthen your psychological flexibility. The more you sharpen this skill, the more easily you will embrace useful thoughts and feelings while setting aside negative or destructive feelings. As your psychological flexibility increases, you will respond more thoughtfully to events. The goal of ACT therapy is to help you live a more meaningful life by avoiding impulsive actions.

By applying techniques of mindfulness, and by developing your psychological flexibility, you can accept rather than avoid your feelings, changing the ways in which you react and relate top those feelings.

Is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy a Form of CBT?

ACT therapy is known as a third-wave psychotherapy. Third-wave psychotherapies are often effective when applied to those unresponsive to second-wave psychotherapies like CBT.

Third-wave treatments include:

  • MBCT (mindfulness-based cognitive therapy)
  • DBT (dialectical behavior therapy)
  • Schema therapy

Third-wave psychotherapies are characterized by:

  • Willingness to consider established clinical traditions.
  • Focus on contextual change.
  • Emphasis on function over form.
  • Construction of flexible techniques.

The goals of CBT and ACT differ. With ACT, you aim to reduce your desire to eliminate or control challenging experiences, and at the same time pursue more meaningful activities consistent with your values. CBT, by contrast, helps you to minimize the severity and frequency of unpleasant internal emotions and experiences.

This review of studies shows that ACT can be effective for treating various conditions, including those spanning multiple diagnoses. Empirical evidence supports the ability of acceptance and commitment therapy to improve overall quality of life, as well as helping people deal with chronic pain and other physical conditions.

Seek Help from Los Angeles Therapy Network

If you feel that acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) could help you deal with challenges in your life, you should look for an experienced and licensed therapist, counselor, or social worker with a specialization in ACT.

ACT practitioners do not require specific certification. Acceptance and commitment therapy skills are developed through training programs, workshops, and peer counseling.

While it is vital to engage with an experienced therapist proficient in this field, you also need to find a therapist who makes you feel comfortable.

Shortcut this process by reaching out to our team of specialists here at Los Angeles Therapy Network. We can connect you with suitable ACT therapists near you, enabling you to live aligned with your goals. Call 833.604.1287 today.

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