Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is an empirically based psychological intervention that uses acceptance and mindfulness strategies, together with commitment and behaviour change strategies, to increase psychological flexibility. In ACT, psychological flexibility means holding our thoughts and emotions a bit more lightly, and acting on longer term values rather than short term impulses, thoughts and feelings.
In standard CBT, distressing thoughts are frequently challenged by looking for evidence and coming up with a more rational or balanced approach. In contrast, in ACT, the thought is not challenged but is accepted as a thought (e.g. “I’m having the thought that I might make a fool of myself…”). We are then able to ‘defuse’ or distance ourselves from the thought using a variety of techniques including labelling, mindfulness and metaphors.
Mindfulness involves observing our experience, in the present moment, without judgement. This helps us ‘defuse’ – to distance ourselves from unhelpful or distressing thoughts, reactions and sensations.
ACT is based on the idea that trying to rid ourselves of pain and emotional distress tends only increases it still further. Learning to accept and make room for difficult painful thoughts, feelings and physical sensations does not mean giving up, being defeated or agreeing with suffering. Acceptance is an acknowledgement of and a willingness to allow these experiences to be present without struggling against them. This leads to reduced secondary pain or suffering and allows us to be able to live more meaningful lives in line with our values.
A value is a life direction which guides us throughout life and gives us meaning and purpose. They are broad areas that we consider important or meaningful, such as relationships with friends or family, being a good parent, being fulfilled at work, practicing self care or leisure activities. Values are different to goals which have an end-point.
Having identified our values, we know the direction we want to progress towards in life. Our values are defined by the actions that we take – we must act out our values for them to be meaningful. We are then able to set goals in order to create a life that is consistent with our true core values.