ACT is a therapeutic approach which incorporates elements of mindfulness, acceptance and behavioural change to encourage the development of psychological flexibility. This has been associated with enhanced quality of life and wellness.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is an evidence-based approach that has been referred to as a third-wave behavioural therapy. It emphasizes aspects of mindfulness (i.e., being in the present moment), willingness, acceptance strategies, values-based work and committed action to allow individuals to live a more meaningful life.
This therapeutic approach invites individuals to accept difficult thoughts, feelings, and situations. When learning Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, people not only accept them but also learn to make room for these difficult thoughts and feelings . This is through present moment awareness and learned skills of acceptance, awareness, observing experiences and defusion (i.e., making space from thoughts and feelings).
The tenets for change within this approach are based on the idea that painful thoughts and feelings are experienced by everyone and we are unable to change their occurrence. What can cause individuals to get stuck is hooking into difficult thoughts and feelings and having strong, unhelpful reactions to them. Therefore, when engaging in this treatment approach, individuals discover how they can accept painful thoughts and feelings as a natural part of life. This would be an important aspect of therapy whether engaging in ACT therapy for anxiety or ACT therapy for OCD.
Individual doing Acceptance and Commitment Therapy also learn to cope with difficult thoughts and feelings, instead of fighting against them. Individuals also learn to defuse challenging thoughts by understanding how to shift one’s attention to things that are meaningful and are aligned with the person they want to be. In doing so, one develops a stance of psychological flexibility towards their thoughts and experiences. This can allow for a greater sense of well-being.
Our mind are very busy places. And we easily can get caught up in the “chatter” that our minds speak. Our minds can focus on thoughts regarding low self-worth, the need to people please and wanting to do things perfectly. We might also experience fear when engaging in certain actions or behaviours. We often get caught up in rigid rules offered to us by our minds. In ACT therapy for anxiety we learn that our minds, while trying to help us, are actually contributing to feeling stuck by not allowing us to behave in ways that take us towards the things we want in life.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy also focuses on the idea that every behaviour has a purpose and a function. Therefore, during therapy in ACT, the purpose of one’s behaviour is explored. It is important to understand that our actions – even when they are not helpful – are carried out for understandable reasons.
In ACT therapy for anxiety, we spend time exploring why we might be avoiding certain actions and activities that would cause us to experience distress and discomfort. We would explore this when engaged in ACT therapy for depression, perfectionism or people pleasing as well – just to name a few presenting issues that ACT is used for in therapy.
When an individual engages in ACT therapy for anxiety, a focus in therapy would be to make room for the idea that we will all experience anxiety in certain situations. And we cannot eliminate the experience of this emotion or the thoughts that our mind has in relation to the experience of anxiety. However, we can learn to unhook or defuse from our anxious thoughts and be able to live a life connected with our values. This work allows for adolescents and adults to spend their time in more meaningful ways and be less caught up in rules and avoidance.
In ACT therapy for anxiety, we will work with you to ensure you have skills and tools when facing situations that are difficult for you. These types of skills you will learn include:
- present moment awareness
- defusion work, such as with Drop An Anchor Skill or Leaves on a Stream
- resisting the urge to avoid or believe what your mind is telling you
- acceptance and allowing of difficult thoughts and feelings
- learning your values and what matters to you
- engaging in committed action
Exposure therapy is an important component of ACT therapy for anxiety. Through this work, individuals will learn how they can approach activities and events that they have been avoiding. This is done through the use of creating graded exposure hierarchies, in-session roles plays and engaging in small challenges between session. We use ACT therapy for anxiety with adolescents and teens as well as with adults.
During Acceptance and Commitment therapy, individuals gain a deeper understanding of their values and move towards things in life that are meaningful for them. In doing so, they will also recognize elements of their life that are keeping them stuck. They will learn to embrace these challenging thoughts and feelings as well.
At FTPS, we use ACT when working with many individuals. We often use ACT therapy for anxiety and ACT therapy for OCD. Some therapists will also integrate ACT into their approaches while others will use it as a stand-alone approach for a variety of other issues as well, including depression, trauma, life transitions and self-exploration.