Who Is Steven Hayes And What Was His Impact On Psychology?

By Patricia Oelze|Updated May 26, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Kelly L. Burns, MA, LPC, ATR-P

Steven Hayes is an American psychologist and Nevada Foundation Professor in the Behavioral Analysis program at the University of Nevada in the Department of Psychology that has made an immense impact on psychology. His career has focused on the behavioral analysis of human language and cognition and applying this to understanding and relieving anxiety disorders and other related mental health disorders. Dr. Hayes has been President of Division 25 of the APA, of the American Association of Applied and Preventive Psychology, the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, and the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science. He is an author of over 46 books, including Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life, and has written over 650 scientific articles. He is the developer of Relational Frame Theory, an account of language and cognition, that lead the way to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which became a renowned evidence-based form of psychotherapy that uses mindfulness, acceptance, and value-based methods.

In 1992, he was listed by the Institute for Scientific Information as the 30th “highest impact” psychologist in the world. Dr. Steven Hayes is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, among many other scientific societies. As a foundation professor, he has won numerous awards, including the Exemplary Contributions to Basic Behavioral Research, the Impact of Science on Application award from the Society for the Advancement of Behavior Analysis, and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapy. Dr. Steven Hayes regularly contributes to mental health blogs and sites, improving the advancement of behavior therapies, creating a huge impact on the world of psychology.

Yet, Dr. Steven Hayes wasn’t always a renowned impact psychologist and a foundation professor with a long list of awards and achievements. His own struggles with crippling anxiety were a tough match to his strong will and immense knowledge in the field of psychology which ultimately has made him the brilliant behavioral psychologist that he is today.

Years ago, Steven Hayes was a well-educated, accomplished assistant professor of the department of psychology in the middle of a charged debate at his university. He opens his mouth to contribute but finds himself unable to talk. In fact, his heart is racing, he cannot breathe, and it almost seems as if he’s have a heart attack. He learns it is a panic attack, but they begin to happen more frequently, forcing him to withdraw from the life he loves and the teaching in the department of psychology that is a big part of his life.

This was Steven Hayes, Ph.D. life at 29. He had developed a full-blown anxiety disorder, and the next two years of his life were extremely painful, but also helped him to tap into his training and skills to find a solution that fit his needs. As part of the process, he tried to reframe his core beliefs according to Cognitive Behavior Therapy, yet his panic attacks did not abate. In fact, he found that they were getting worse. He did not want to give up and hide from the world.

His determination to take back his life led him to make a lasting contribution to psychology, although it is one that is considered controversial in the debates between cognitive therapy and behavioral therapies.

Hayes Finds Alternatives That Leads To A New Therapy

As Steven Hayes was seeking a solution to address his panic disorder, he stepped away from the more traditional options and began to explore alternatives. These included combining practices from his New Age college days with scientific knowledge and research. The result was his development of the model that underlies the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). According the the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science, ACT is “a unique empirically based psychological intervention that uses acceptance and mindfulness strategies, together with commitment and behavioral change strategies, to increase psychological flexibility.”

Using this model, he was able to eliminate his panic attacks, but it was also clear that he was on to something that could prove useful in treating other mental health issues as well. His lab became a research center on how rules affect behavior, on psychological flexibility, and the effects of verbal problem-solving. This additional research led to the Relational Frame Theory (RFT), an accounting of language and cognition, which aims to understand the link between language and behavior.

His work gave the world of psychology Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which was modified to focus on how to reduce the impact of various thoughts, instead of eliminating the thoughts themselves regardless of their content.

In the book, Get Out of Your Mind, and Into Your Life, Hayes summarizes his behavioral and cognitive research and methods for the layperson. That book also put him front and center in the debates about the best practice modalities for the treatment of anxiety disorders. As time went on, Hayes found that his solid, research-based model was able to be applied to a variety of health and wellness issues, making it beneficial beyond the anxiety disorder he originally focused on.

What Is Involved In ACT?

For therapists employing Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, ACT, it is important to stress that detachment from negative thoughts and powerful beliefs comes from employing mindfulness practices. The result is that while these thoughts and beliefs are not eliminated, they can be controlled, even when they reoccur.

The focus of the therapy is identifying and committing to personal values and finding ways to live according to them. Some of the methods used by ACT therapists could be writing epitaphs, defining their futures, and rating how their actions reflect their values. In many ways, the therapist becomes a coach, helping to walk you through the different aspects of this model so that you can learn ways to alleviated these negative thought patterns and  create positive change in your life.

This empirically-based psychological intervention with its acceptance and mindfulness strategies are combined with commitment and behavior-change strategies. What makes it unique is that the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) illuminates how language and cognition can entangle us into attempts to wage war with our inner lives, and teaches us how to break that cycle and change those behaviors using different techniques.

Hayes' Breakdown Of The ACT Model

The Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT model) is based upon functional contextualism as the philosophy and Relational Frame Theory (RFT) as the theory. Therefore, it is not defined by one specific set of techniques, but rather targets the processes of language, including:

  • Cognitive fusion - How stimulus functions can dominate based on literal language, despite the potential harm
  • Experimental avoidance - when a person is unwilling to remain in contact with particular private experiences, even trying to alter the form or frequency of these events and their context, even at the risk of psychological harm
  • Domination of the conceptualized self of the self as context
  • Inability to build a larger unit of behavior that moves in the direction of your chosen values
  • Your goals and values may not be defined, or they are confused

Those who use the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) model are not limited to just one particular method or treatment option. Essentially, they can pick from standard behavioral therapy techniques and those that have emerged from outside the traditional techniques associated with cognitive and behavior therapy.

It means that therapists can fit the behavioral analysis techniques to their patients, instead of sticking to one particular behavior or cognitive therapy option.

What Is Functional Contextualism?

Throughout this discussion of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), it is important to recognize that it is fundamentally rooted in functional contextualism.  Its behavioral analysis goal is the prediction and influence of various events, with a level of precision, scope, and depth. For those who focus on contextual behavioral science, there is a long-range view of psychological events as ongoing actions interacting in and with the historically and situational contexts of an individual and their experiences.

When we translate this to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), it is clear that the biggest factor is the chosen values of the individual and workability as a truth criterion. Its unique goals lead to different results than other types of contextualism, but the focus of this behavioral analysis is on the whole, instead of isolated events or experiences.

Now that we have a better understanding of what the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) model is, we need to explore the six core processes involved.

Hayes' Six-Core Processes

The general idea is that Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) gives therapists increased psychological flexibility, which is established through six core processes.

The first one is acceptance. For many, private events in our past may be avoided, but that avoidance comes with the potential for psychological harm. Instead, acceptance involves actively and with full awareness, accepting those private events without trying to change them. Anxiety patients would be taught to accept the anxiety as a feeling, without resisting or defensiveness, but simply to feel the feeling and let it be.

The second one is cognitive diffusion, which attempts to detach from the undesirable functions of thoughts and other private events instead of trying to alter them. It involves changing how you interact with or relate to your thoughts by creating a context that helps to diminish their negative connotation, letting them come and go without becoming stuck to them.

The third process is being in the present moment. Being present is a way to promote ongoing non-judgmental contact with your psychological and environmental events at the moment they occur. Being present involves consciously connecting and engaging with what is happening right now, without thinking of “what’s next” or going into autopilot.

The fourth process is self as context, where language becomes the primary focus. It leads to an understanding of how language influences our perspectives and the power of language. Using mindfulness exercises, one can be aware of your flow of experiences without attachment to them.

The fifth process is the focus on values, which are chosen qualities that are unique to each person. Using a variety of exercises, a therapist can perform a behavioral analysis and help their client to choose life directions in a variety of areas while helping them to undermine the verbal processes that might undermine their ability to go in that direction.

Finally, the sixth process is committed to action, where the therapist encourages the development of larger patterns to help individuals be more flexible and allow their actions to be more in line with their values, whether it be pleasant or unpleasant, the individual sticks to their core values, using our moral compass to guide you on your life journey. This part is where Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) most aligns with behavioral therapy, as goals that value consistency can be set, and there can be short medium and long-term behavior change goals.

Taking all of these processes together, it is clear that each of them supports the others and all provide a level of flexibility for both the therapist and their client.

The Impact Of Steven Hayes

As you can see, Steven Hayes did not just address his own panic attacks and anxiety disorder but also gave additional tools and a model of behavioral analysis for therapists to use to help their clients connect with their thoughts and values, as well as create a plan of action to address the aspects of avoidance or negativity coming from those thoughts and experiences.

This young man took an experience that was crippling to him at the time and turned it into a major part of the psychology toolbox. He brought his scientific information and research at the department of psychology, along with skills that lead to the creation of his model, while engaging with others in his field regarding the various aspects of cognitive and behavioral therapy that had a huge impact on behavioral therapies as we know them today.

If you are dealing with panic attacks or an anxiety disorder, using the processes of the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) model could be beneficial. To find a licensed therapist who can work with you using that model, please contact us at BetterHelp. Our site can help you to find a therapist or certified counselor who can assist you in finding a way to deal with your anxiety effectively, better your mental heath, and guide you on your journey to recovery.


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