What Is Acceptance And Commitment Therapy?

By BetterHelp Editorial Team|Updated July 29, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Chante’ Gamby, LCSW

Acceptance and commitment therapy, or ACT (pronounced like the word "act"), is a mindful approach to accepting the hardships in life to improve one's overall quality of living. What is ACT in a nutshell? Acceptance and commitment therapy is a form of psychotherapy kindred to cognitive-behavioral therapy that helps people focus on the present and move forward from overwhelming, difficult emotions. This type of therapy is also available on online counseling websites in a more convenient and accessible way to treat disorders. While treatment time may vary from person to person, it can help diffuse the impact of negative emotions (cognitive defusion) and reshape your thinking to treat depression, anxiety, and other similar mental disorders. The Association for Contextual Behavioral Science has a wealth of article resources on ACT and behavior therapy, as does Psychology Today.

a woman considers her options for mental health help

Life's Challenges Can Be Difficult To Overcome Without Support

What's The Goal Of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy?

The goal of ACT therapy is to diffuse negative thought patterns and unnecessary emotional dwelling. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy uses a variety of approaches drawn from behavioral analysis, mindfulness exercises, cognitive diffusion, acceptance, and commitment methods, just to name a few.

What does acceptance and commitment therapy do?

With the help of a licensed professional, you'll pick up a collection of coping mechanisms or skills specifically designed for your situation which you can use throughout your life to handle tough experiences and stay in the present moment. Those who experience traumatic flashbacks and generalized anxiety from everyday actions can benefit from behavior changes that come from this therapy because of its encouragement of keeping people in the present. It's difficult to move through life without mentally existing in the here and now, so ACT provides the guidance necessary for clients to stop fighting with their thoughts. And with its various methods, it can do wonders for those in need. ACT can help you learn a new behavior, change strategies to cope, and feel better overall. This can have positive ripple effects on you, others in your life, and your relationships.

How Does Acceptance And Commitment Therapy Work?

ACT works in three areas: accept the emotion and be mindful, choose a direction, and then act accordingly. The first part involves the acceptance of things that are out of your control. Focusing on things outside of your control may cause more distress the more you focus on it. In the second and third area, you are taking charge and committing to the action that will push you forward instead of remaining stagnant in a muck of emotions.
 

a woman sits and ponders what options she has to address her mental health challenges

You might envision yourself as different than who you are in reality. By shaving away the negative pieces, you can find your true self underneath. You are not the collection of apprehensive thoughts and feelings that frequently pop up during the day. You are so much more than that. When you commit to this type of therapy, you will discover the amazing stillness that can come from it. The more you practice mindfulness techniques, the better you will get at handling those curve balls that life likes to throw. Another concept, relational frame theory, gives ideas about what to change to make things happen. 

What is the struggle switch?

Dr. Russ Harris proposed this concept in his book, The Happiness Trap. He suggests that when the switch is on, our brains try to resist unpleasant emotions like anxiety. When the switch is off, we allow ourselves to feel a full range of human emotions, letting these feelings come and go without attempting to resist, hide, or block them. The psychological flexibility this awards us can be hugely beneficial to our overall greater well being.

What is cognitive fusion?

This is described as being in a state where your emotions control your difficult thoughts and behaviors. 

What is third wave CBT?

Behavioral therapy is the first wave, cognitive therapy is the second, and acceptance-based therapy is the third wave. 

How Can I Accept Painful Emotions?

Often in daily life, we are presented with some heavy emotions and distressing thoughts that can be quite painful to process. ACT encourages us to accept these situations as soon as they surface and actively start practicing awareness of these emotions. The sooner you accept the feeling, the sooner you can move on from it and maintain a health level of being. It's important to remember that feelings aren't facts, and they can pass just as quickly as they come along. They only have power over you as long as you let them.

What are the six ACT principles of acceptance and commitment therapy?

They are:

  • Defusion (the opposite of cognitive fusion)
  • Acceptance
  • Contact with the present moment
  • The Observing Self
  • Values
  • Committed action

A Helpful Metaphor

Think of yourself as a filter. When a feeling comes to the surface, allow it to pass through you like a liquid. Don't obsess over the feeling, and don't give it the ability to warp into another aggravating thought. Give it time to wash through you, imagining it like a wave that will eventually break over the shore. Once it passes, you can sit down and process what you felt.

During the processing stage, it's imperative not to get stuck in a cycle of rumination. Those who live with anxiety and depression are prone to falling down this rabbit hole, which ACT attempts to avoid through behavior modification. You want to diffuse these negative thoughts instead of agitating them.

An anxious brain is on constant alert, cycling through different scenarios in which things can go from wrong to even worse. When you allow these emotions to pass, you can find a peaceful pond sitting on the other side of your thoughts instead of a warring ocean.

Reminders To Consider:

  1. You are in control of your own body even if you are not in control of your surroundings.
  2. It's okay to not be good at everything you try. That's what trying is for!
  3. Your strengths are so much more valuable than your weaknesses.
  4. Do not act on every single thought. Let them flow like a river back to its source.
  5. What happened years ago is not happening right now.

These are just some examples of what an ACT therapist would ask you to say to yourself during these moments. Use whichever ones work best while you're focusing on being mindful.

What Is Mindfulness?

Imagine being able to quiet those intrusive thoughts that plague you during the day and trade them for your surroundings. There's a sense of calmness in this action. You feel lighter, perhaps even a bit more in control of your own body and breathing than you thought. Your shoulders relax, and your head starts to feel clear. You can hear yourself breathe through the silence surrounding you. This is what being mindful feels like.

How Do I Achieve Mindfulness?

To achieve a state of mindfulness, one must focus on the present situation. What do you hear? What can you smell? Is there something in your vision or have you closed your eyes to focus more on your other senses? Are you cold or warm? How does your food taste? These sensations aren't to prompt more emotions, but to help diffuse the unfavorable ones. Once you can separate yourself from those uncomfortable feelings, you can focus more on going about your day without them.
 
Though many achieve mindfulness through meditation, you can achieve mindfulness easily by looking at what is around you. This can be accomplished at work, at home, or on the go. If you're finding it difficult to become present, try changing the sensations you're picking up on. Perhaps light a scented candle to help you focus or run cold water over your hand to force you into that moment. These strategies can help you practice and get better at being mindful, knowing that everyone processes challenges differently.

Determining Your Values

Being mindful more often can help you clarify the important goals in your life that you would like to achieve, however big or small. It could be publishing a book or surrounding yourself with happier people. Maybe you want to go a full day without panicking, or you want to be able to get into your work without mental disruption. What habits would you like to curb that is holding you back? These are some basic goals to start with.

Life's Challenges Can Be Difficult To Overcome Without Support

How Does ACT Help?
Through Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, you can discover your most valued desires. Clearing away negative emotions and memories by bringing your attention to the present can pave room for everything else. A whole day could be waiting for you on the other side of those fuzzy thoughts. Just think of how much you could accomplish without the added difficulty of anxiety symptoms. What once was a difficult battle will become a clear path on which you can walk.

It can be scary discovering there's a world outside of that haze of thinking. What else can you finally do that you haven't been able to? How will you be able to turn the page? Paint that picture? Write that book? Walk to your favorite park without the intrusive thought that you might get run over? Everything is suddenly possible when you make room for your true self to thrive without the weight of frightful emotions. This is why this approach has helped the lives of millions.

And shedding that emotional weight can make room for your commitment, whether to yourself or a relationship you may be in.

How To Commit

Commitment starts from the very beginning. It's hard work making changes in your life, but Acceptance and Commitment Therapy can gently guide you in that direction. Once you've become calm enough to identify what is important to you and a problem you may be facing, you can start taking the steps necessary to achieve your goals. And this is something that you must keep working on. One thing to keep in mind: Every day will prove to be a challenge, but Acceptance and Commitment Therapy will give you the tools to cope with it.
 
As much as Acceptance Commitment Therapy can help, the information only helps someone who is willing to dedicate their time to the practice. Consistent attendance—whether in person or virtually—is the key to reaping the benefits of this psychotherapy. Commitment begins the very first day you begin ACT. From there, it's commitment that keeps you walking into that therapy office each week/month that you attend. And from there, commitment lies in your desire to be healthy.

You deserve to be healthy and happy in your life—always remember that when you are going through psychotherapy like ACT or CBT. Keep pushing forward because you deserve it.

What is the difference between CBT and ACT?

CBT is a widely used form of therapy designed to treat a specific issue in a short timeframe. Its focus is on building coping patterns. ACT is generally accepted as a form of CBT which focuses on acceptance strategies using the self as context.

What is DBT in psychology?

DBT, or dialectical behavior therapy, is a form of CBT that aims to support people diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, or BPD. It focuses on helping clients learn to manage impulses like physical sensations in response to strong emotions.

What are some CBT strategies?

CBT strategies aim to help you change patterns of thought and, in turn, turn unwanted behaviors in a more valued direction. Some of the most popular strategies include reframing a thought or problem, progressive relaxation techniques, exposure therapy, behavior activation, roleplaying, and journaling.

Who can benefit from acceptance and commitment therapy?

Acceptance therapy is most useful to people managing psychological disorders like anxiety, depression, everyday stress, and substance use. It is not super useful for people managing more physical conditions, like brain injuries or neurological disorders. However, according to Psychology Today, ACT can sometimes be helpful in managing chronic pain. 

Utilizing Online ACT

There is evidence supporting the use of online acceptance and commitment therapy ACT when dealing with a variety of mental health concerns. In a broad-based review published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, the effects of online ACT on those experiencing symptoms of anxiety were examined. The study aggregated the results of 20 studies where online ACT was utilized for a variety of anxiety disorders, included generalized anxiety, social anxiety, and illness anxiety. Researchers noted that these treatments significantly reduced symptoms of anxiety, concluding that ACT could be effectively administered through online platforms. The report's data also states that online ACT aims to reduce common barriers to ACT treatment in history, including geographical or place constraints, high costs, and perceived stigma.
 
As outlined above, if you are experiencing complicated emotions related to anxiety or other mental health issues, online ACT can help. With BetterHelp, you can participate in therapy from the comfort of your home, without dealing with the traffic of a city, sitting in a waiting room, or missing work just to make an appointment. Online therapy is available no matter if you live in the city or the country. The ACT therapists at BetterHelp can provide you with acceptance and commitment therapy that works for you. Read below for counselor reviews, from those who have sought help in the past. 

Counselor Reviews

“Rhonda is great. She helped me cut through my mental clutter, and use breathing, visualization and sensory mindfulness to mitigate and address some of life's issues.” 

“Theresa was very helpful in understanding what I was going through. She was able to take what I was feeling and struggling and find ways I could cope through various thinking exercises and mindfulness activities. She helped me to overall be mindful of my thoughts. Theresa was a big help in my process of overcoming my anxiety.”

Conclusion: Accepting & Committing Therapy

If having a clearer mind and healthier lifestyle sounds appealing to you, it would be beneficial to give ACT a chance. And while the work might eventually be challenging, starting doesn't have to be. To get yourself on track to getting better help, reach out to a professional today. BetterHelp has thousands of professionals located in the United States and around the world, waiting to support you and your personal values.

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