What is ACT?
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a form of mindfulness based therapy which teaches people to diminish the impact of intrusive thoughts, to refrain from overreacting and to gain control over their lives by taking action.
ACT focuses on three areas:
- Accept your reactions and be present
- Choose a valued direction
- Take action
When intrusive thoughts enter our minds, we may try to avoid them, often unsuccessfully. ACT teaches you to accept intrusive thoughts and learn to live with them, diminishing the impact they have on your life.
The ACT concept states that unpleasant experiences are a natural part of life and that intrusive thoughts will occur. As such, it is more natural to observe unpleasant thoughts rather than deny them, thereby reducing the power these thoughts have over us through resilience training.
Some people avoid everyday situations because of abnormal fears. Others try to avoid distress by turning to tranquilisers, drugs or alcohol. This is a distortion of our ability to anticipate and avoid problems. ACT makes these avoidance tactics redundant by altering our responses to the unwanted thoughts that trigger abnormal behaviours.
ACT is utilised by professionals, students and athletes to gain performance improvements and for self-improvement in general. People who can reduce their responses to bad thoughts are not easily derailed – they are more focused and deliver better results.
ACT does not eliminate disorders. It teaches flexibility that frees you from being intimidated and frustrated by life’s problems. It gives you a calmer perspective going forward. Although ACT is not meant to eliminate disorders or symptoms, effective symptom reduction is, nonetheless, a positive by-product.
ACT is not intended to directly stop painful feelings or intrusive thoughts, but rather to develop a tolerant, realistic, almost dismissive, attitude towards them, so that they cease to be overwhelming. Overthinking painful issues interferes with rational thought and has health implications. As such, ACT is a healthier defence mechanism.
ACT can be applied on its own or integrated with others when a specialist designs a treatment plan for an individual. Whilst ACT does not suit every person, it has proven useful in most cases of addiction, anxiety, depression and other disorders.
The methodology of ACT
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy diminishes the impact of unpleasant, intrusive thoughts, without actually stopping the thoughts. The value of this outcome is that it will not, for instance, eliminate anxiety (which is needed for survival), but it will reduce any anxiety related to unpleasant thoughts. It also avoids the all-consuming process of eliminating intrusive thoughts completely. The following are some of the processes by means of which this is achieved:
Acceptance: This means allowing all unpleasant thoughts to enter your mind. In other words, you simply accept thoughts without putting up any resistance. Other approaches try to block or remove these thoughts which is counter-productive. ACT teaches us to rather accept that these thoughts are part of life. By adopting new ways to moderate the thoughts, without wasting effort on trying to stop or reject them, we can more easily commit to taking action, which comes next.
Commitment: This motivates you to overcome failure and frustration and to restructure your life in spite of serious setbacks. You have to choose certain values and commit yourself to achieve goals along the way to fulfilling those values. These paths are called valued directions. Choosing valued directions means weighing up (evaluating) what is most important in your life and then committing yourself to complete a journey in the valued direction that you have chosen. You also commit to measuring your progress on a regular basis.
Valued Directions: ACT requires that you ask yourself what your core values are. In order to live a life in congruence with who you are, you need to behave in accordance with your values. Values are the things that ultimately matter to you – what you want to be remembered for. By refining these standards, they can guide you for the rest of your life and greatly improve your self-image.
Mindfulness: Mindfulness is the ability to sense what is actually happening in the present moment and to react in a fully engaging, pragmatic manner, rather than dwelling on negative, non-factual elements that will distract you. Being in contact with the present moment, rather than obsessing about the past or the future, is necessary for acceptance and living consistently with one’s values. See this mindfulness video here.
Cognitive Defusion: This involves detaching oneself from an intrusive thought and dismissing it as a less important matter. Our minds function on two “levels”, one is subjective and the other objective. Though we respond to a thought on one level, we can look at the same thought from another level, enabling us to judge whether our initial response was correct. Looking at it from a neutral point of view gives us more realistic insight and makes it easier to demote exaggerated thoughts and feelings.
Language: Language literally showcases how you see yourself and the world around you. Changes in the way you speak influence the way you think. Saying things in a less negative way exerts a more positive influence on one’s mind. The language actually shapes your reactions. For example; if a word like “idiot” normally triggers an avalanche of passionate anger or sadness, repeating it several times reduces it to an arbitrary, dispassionate word. Human language includes facial expressions, body gestures, writing, painting and many more, which leave the same footprints as spoken words.
Although the above mentioned are the most common elements of ACT, it is not a rigid protocol and therapists can adjust their recipes to suit specific requirements.
A summary of the core principles of ACT
Acceptance: Observing intrusive thoughts without fighting against them, but also not allowing them to control your life.
Mindfulness: Acute awareness of reality in the here and now, with a clear, receptive mind, rather than a mind which is speculating or anticipating harm.
Cognitive defusion: Distancing yourself from intrusive thoughts and reducing them to less significant matters that will eventually fade in intensity.
Valued directions: Digging out your most important values and then diligently following the chosen directions to reshape your future and yourself.
Committed action: Responsibly committing yourself to achieve goals, based on the chosen valued directions, and striving to honour those goals.
The benefits of ACT
- You cannot be consumed by an intrusive thought
- You can explore intrusive thoughts with a clear mind
- You can decide whether a thought is true or not
- You can decide if the thought is worthwhile or not
- You can decide if the thought is a real threat or not
- You can react correctly, efficiently if the warning is real
- You can decide if the thought is a command you must obey
- You can dismiss the thought and turn to other matters
- You can safely allow the thought and wait for it to pass
- You gain time to calmly restructure your life
- You will be armed to handle future emotional upsets
- You can meet people and attend functions without fear
- You do not need drugs or alcohol to suppress your feelings
- You discover and maintain meaningful, enriching values
- You can focus on other things, instead of fixating on feelings
- You can improve your performance in any sphere of your life.
- You can more easily discard other emotional problems
- You learn to be in touch with yourself
- Your environment changes from a prison to a universe
Who can benefit from ACT?
Acceptance and commitment therapy can benefit an extremely wide range of people.
In addition, people in the fringe zones of emotional discomfort, enduring issues such as loneliness, boredom, alienation, meaninglessness, low self-esteem, bullying, sexism, racism, prejudice, rejection, slander, ignorance, domestic violence and divorce, will most definitely benefit from it.
Apart from mental health solutions, ACT is also an effective coaching tool for simply improving performance in almost all spheres of life, be it work, team building, leadership, job seeking, studies, athletics, professional demands, entrepreneurship, socialising, home management, hospitality, relationships, emotional intelligence and general self-improvement.
If you suffer from a mental condition or want to improve your performance, feel free to contact us for professional advice or a confidential appointment with an experienced counsellor.