What is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy?
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) combines strategies of acceptance and mindfulness with behavior change strategies to increase psychological flexibility. This means connecting with the present moment fully, without judgement, instead of waging a battle within one’s mind about the future or trying to change things out of one’s control. Through metaphor and experiential exercises clients learn how to connect with thoughts, feelings, memories, and physical sensations that have been feared and avoided.
In ACT you identify what hasn’t worked for you in the past and learn to stop repeating behavioral patterns that are causing problems. You learn to accept what you cannot control, develop greater clarity about your personal values, and commit to needed behavior change. You stop avoiding, denying, and struggling with inner emotions, and instead, focus on living your life while accepting your feelings.
Trying to control emotions and experiences out of one’s control is not only ineffective, it’s counterproductive because it leads to increased frustration and hopelessness. For instance, it’s normal to feel anxious before making a big presentation. If your efforts to stop the anxiety are not successful, you might feel frustrated, hopeless, and defective. By accepting the anxiety you, prevent feeling these negative emotions. In ACT you focus on making changes in the one area where you have influence and control – your behavior, not on your thoughts or feelings.
Begin to pay attention to your thoughts, feelings and symptoms as well as your self-talk when you experience those thoughts, feelings and symptoms.
What do you think when you experience a physical symptom, like stomach distress? Do you believe you have stomach cancer? Do feel embarrassed about the stomach noises? Or do accept the sensations and feelings and continue on with your day? Begin to notice what you tell yourself when you experience certain feelings? A patient recently told me she did not feel excited about having children. She believed that this was an indication she would be a bad mother.
Everyone experiences thoughts throughout day but we also have thoughts about those thoughts. A high school teacher told me he had sexual thoughts about certain female students and believed he was a child molester for having those thoughts. His behavior was always perfectly appropriate but could not stop his thoughts. ACT aims to help you let go of your struggles with your thoughts, feelings, and symptoms, accept what you cannot control without judgement, and then practice more confident and optimistic behavior, based on your personal values and goals.