Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is an approach to counseling that is considered a mindful offshoot of traditional Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT. It’s the type of approach I use with my clients frequently in Chicago.
While the clinical name may sound super fancy, in truth, ACT’s essential tenants are fairly straight forward.
Before offering a basic definition of ACT, it might be helpful to understand the connected therapeutic approach of CBT in order to absorb the two models.
Let’s take a look:
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
In a nutshell, cognitive behavioral therapy is largely focused on the here and now. It is considered an evidence based type of therapy because it is “backed up” so to speak by the clinical literature.
CBT targets irrational thinking, including thought distortions, which in many ways contribute to issues like anxiety and depression.
The clinical research suggests that CBT is one of the most effective forms of therapy available. The co-fathers of CBT are Albert Ellis, PhD and Aaron Beck, MD, respectively.
CBT Main Features
The main features of traditional CBT include:
- Focusing on your thoughts in the here and now
- Assessing your beliefs, which may or may not be grounded in facts.
- Challenging thoughts that may be irrational, illogical or self-limiting.
- Exploring new thinking patterns.
Length of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Generally speaking, CBT is considered a briefer form of counseling. The primary goal of this therapeutic approach is to help you shift your awareness from unproductive and often negative thinking to more balanced, healthier thoughts.
Because therapy is goal driven and doesn’t spend a lot of time processing emotions or the past, it tends to be shorter in nature.
The exact number of sessions is hard to determine but when compared to other approaches to wellness, such as psycho-dynamic type therapies, CBT is arguably briefer.
CBT and ACT
As mentioned previously, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is an offshoot of CBT. At its core, ACT is an approach to wellness that teaches you to accept the various challenges that come along with life without trying to control them.
Third Wave CBT
ACT itself is not new but it is considered to be what’s commonly referred to as a “Third Wave” type of psychotherapy.
Third wave is a 25-cent term for newer forms of a previously built therapeutic model but have the added feature of focusing on the reduction of symptoms while helping you to live a richer, more purposeful life.
ACT is Mindful Based
A characteristic of ACT is that it is considered to be “mindful based” – meaning that it is focused on the here and now and is designed to allow you to overcome negative thoughts, which are connected to feelings.
When you think of ACT, think of a goal focused type therapy that is concerned with changing how you cope with various life challenges.
ACT also speaks to the “C” part of the acronym regarding “Commitment”. In this way, the goal is to focus on your commitment to the change process and come up with strategies when you are unable to stick to your identified goals.
Three Aspects of ACT
Three Focus Areas of ACT
With mindfulness based cognitive therapy in the form of ACT, there are 3 specific areas that make up this solution focused form of counseling.
Let’s take a look:
3. Take Action
One of the hallmarks of ACT is to accept things as they are and recognize there are some things that simply cannot be controlled. The benefit here is to help change the urge to feel like you need to control things and instead, mindfully accept the realities of a given situation.
This empowering aspect of ACT helps you to move away from obsessive thoughts and worrying and trying to control “life”. Again – the goal is to accept things as they are and work with what we are presented in the here and now.
Common acceptance strategies of ACT include:
- Allowing yourself to not act on impulses or feelings, which are commonly based on thought distortions.
- Become mindful of your weakness but also acknowledge your strengths.
- Writing yourself a permission slip to not be perfect at everything.
- Acknowledging difficult areas of your life but not engaging in learned helplessness.
- Empowering yourself to believe that you are in control of how you think, react, behave and feel.
The term “commitment” in the ACT model is all about being mindfully present in the here and now and accepting things as they are without judging them and without trying to control them.
In this way, you are taught new skills that are designed to help you better cope with psychological perceptions with your environment, including how you view your personal characteristics, the people emotionally connected to you and other life relationships.
The “C” part of act is choosing a valued direction and trying to stick to it. In other words, a commitment to choose how you respond, based on the diffusion of unhealthy thinking.
Choosing a valued directions means:
- Recognizing the internal, self-limiting messages that you play in your mind and making a commitment to accept things as they are and not as we wish them to be.
- Embracing who you are as a person, including the spiritual aspects of yourself, that are authentic to you.
- Committing yourself to living in the here and now – as in this very moment in time – and not engaging in avoidant behaviors.
- Committing yourself to the belief that you can live a vibrant, meaningful and fulfilling life and that happiness is achievable.
The final aspect of the ACT construct is the “T” part of the acronym. This means exactly what it means – take action.
Examples of taking action include things like the following:
- Living mindfully in the moment.
- Affirming realistic, positive messages about who you are and the world you live in.
- Setting realistic short-term and long term goals that are strength based and that don’t set yourself up for failure.
- Being open to behavioral changes and recognizing you have the power to move the proverbial “ball” on your personal basketball court.
Applications of CBT - ACT
What can ACT Be Used For?
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, a Mindfulness Based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy approach, has lots of practical uses in everyday life.
Here are just a few of them:
- Reducing excessive worry
- Changing relationships with phobias & fears.
- Anxiety and Stress reduction
- Increasing confidence and self-esteem.
- Stopping learned helplessness
- Working through past traumas
- Motivation to lose weight & build muscle
- Goal setting – short term and long term
- Working through feelings of sadness
- Moving through loss and grief
One of the key ingredients to ACT is the component of mindfulness. While this may sound like a fancy term, it really is nothing more than being aware of the present moment in time, using all five of your senses.
Mindfulness can be enhanced in a number of different ways, including:
- Hypnosis and hypnotherapy
- Mindfulness based guided imagery.
- Psycho-Education based education on stress
Mindfulness is really a state of being. It’s about being focused in the moment and accepting the thoughts that come in and out of your mind without trying to judge them or change them.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy can yield meaningful results as a form of CBT. This skill building form of personal therapy is simple in its approach but requires that you actively commit yourself to the change process.
ACT is an excellent tool for counseling as well as life coaching.
If you are interested in learning more about how you can implement components of ACT into your own life, a useful resource to consider is the book: Act Made Simple by Russ Harris with a forward by Dr. Stephen Hayes, one of the major movers and shakers of ACT.