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

Updated September 25, 2018

Reviewer Tiffany Howard, LPC, LCADC

Imagine being a well-educated, accomplished assistant professor in the middle of a charged debate at your university. You open your mouth to contribute but find yourself unable to talk. In fact, your heart is racing, you cannot breathe, and it almost seems as if you have a heart attack. You learn it is a panic attack, but they begin to happen more frequently, forcing you to withdraw from the life you love and the teaching that is a big part of your life.

Source: psychotherapy.net

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).

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.

His work gave the world of psychology ACT, which was modified to focus on how to reduce the impact of various thoughts, instead of eliminating the thoughts themselves or regardless of their content..

Source: youtube.com

In the book, Get Out of Your Mind, and Into Your Life, Hayes summarizes his research and methods for the layperson. That book also put him front and center in the debates about the best practice modalities for 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 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 create change in your life.

Source: linkedin.com

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 ACT illuminates how language can entangle us into attempts to wage war with our inner lives.

Hayes' Breakdown Of The ACT Model

The ACT model is based upon functional contextualism as the philosophy and 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 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 techniques to their patient, instead of sticking to one particular behavior or cognitive therapy option.

What Is Functional Contextualism?

Throughout this discussion of ACT, it is important to recognize that it is fundamentally rooted in functional contextualism. Its goal is the prediction and influence of various events, with a level of precision, scope, and depth. For those who focus on contextualism, 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.

Source: mysimpleshow.com

When we translate this to 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 is on the whole, instead of isolated events or experiences.

Now that we have a better understanding of what the ACT model is, we need to explore the six core processes involved.

Hayes' Six-Core Processes

The general idea is that 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 defensiveness, but simply to feel the feeling.

The second one is cognitive diffusion, which attempts to alter 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 aspects.

Being present is a way to promote an ongoing non-judgmental contact with your psychological and environmental events at the moment they occur. This third process is meant to help individuals to be more flexible and allow their actions to be more in line with their values.

Source: commons.wikimedia.org

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 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 of effective action in line with your values. This part is where ACT most aligns with behavioral therapy, as goals that value consistent 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 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. At the same time, he brought his scientific research and skills to the creation of his model, while engaging with others in his field regarding the various aspects of cognitive and behavioral therapy.

Source: youtube.com

If you are dealing with panic attacks or an anxiety disorder, using the processes of the 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.


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