Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) was developed as a method of introducing the techniques of Mindfulness into psychotherapy. ACT is based on Relational Frame Theory (RFT), which is a theoretical framework developed by Steven Hayes of the University of Nevada. RFT is a way of looking at how language influences behavior, and how behavior influences languages. A corollary to RTF is that a large part of our reality, our world of experience, is constructed by the language we use, and the ways in which we relate that language to the real world. This would mean that a lot of the things that cause us anxiety, stress, depression, and other unpleasant thoughts and feelings, are the result of how we use language to interpret our world.
While Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) concentrates on teaching people how to better control their thoughts and feelings, ACT focuses on teaching people how to acknowledge and accept their own internal dialog without feeling overwhelmed by those thoughts and feelings. It teaches the student/practitioner to be in the moment with those feelings and thoughts, without having to identify with them. This applies to unwanted thoughts and feelings as well. By seeing these as processes of the mind, acceptance increases.
One of the goals of ACT is to get in touch with what Buddhists call true self. True self is that internal observer who is watching these processes without becoming engaged in them. True self helps in the process of externalization; i.e., of seeing the problem as separate from the identity and sense of self. By establishing this boundary between true self and thoughts/feelings as processes, the practitioner is better able to identify and clarify his/her own personal values, and to commit to them. This then brings more meaning to the life of the individual.
One of the core concepts of ACT is that psychological processes can often be self-destructive. For example, experiential avoidance can lead to suffering. If a person has social anxiety, and avoids contact with other humans, this can lead to a lack of social support, important relationships, and friendships. This isolation, in turn, leads to suffering. Or if a victim of PTSD avoids places and behaviors that remind her of the place where the trauma occurred, her life choices have been limited. This limitation can also lead to suffering.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) uses the FEAR acronym to explain and identify such problems with experiential avoidance and cognitive entanglement. FEAR is as follows:
- Fusion with your thoughts
- Evaluation of experience
- Avoidance of your experience
- Reason giving for your behavior
The antidote to the FEAR response is the ACT response, which is:
- Accept your reactions and be present
- Choose a valued direction
- Take action
The goal of ACT is to develop psychological flexibility. This is achieved through the implementation of six core principles of ACT:
- Cognitive defusion: Learning to perceive thoughts, images, emotions, and memories as what they are, not what they appear to be.
- Acceptance: Allowing them to come and go without struggling with them.
- Contact with the present moment: Awareness of the here and now, experienced with openness, interest, and receptiveness.
- Observing the self: Accessing a transcendent sense of self, a continuity of consciousness which is changing.
- Values: Discovering what is most important to one’s true self.
- Committed action: Setting goals according to values and carrying them out responsibly.
Since its development, ACT has been evaluated in nearly 100 different studies. All of these studies show that it is a highly effective method of achieving stress and anxiety reduction for a wide variety of disorders.
Hayes, S.C, Strosahl, K.D., & Wilson, K.G. (2012). Acceptance and commitment therapy: The process and practice of mindful change (2nd edition). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.