What is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Why Should You Try It?

Do you ever struggle to accept your circumstances? Maybe you try to resist challenging situations, or perhaps you feel like your outlook on life has become rigid. If so, you might benefit from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT. Pro tip: It’s said as one word (“act”), not “A-C-T”.

With ACT, therapists teach valuable mindfulness skills to help you stay grounded and present. They also help you identify your own values, and help you identify ways you can move towards them by engaging in values-consistent behavior, even under challenging scenarios. Moreover, it provides you with a clear understanding of behavior and thought patterns that may be keeping you stuck. We usually get emotionally “stuck” when we try to suppress or avoid emotional discomfort. It’s one of life’s great ironies; that if we’re not willing to have it, we’ve got it – times 10. Greater insight into unhelpful patterns can help you approach things in a new way. Instead of worrying about getting rid of an uncomfortable emotion like anxiety or fear, you can learn to exist in spite of it. ACT helps you develop healthier emotional responses, but more importantly it lets you become less reactionary so that you can take a breath between stimulus and response before engaging in a behavior that’s right for you.

Through ACT, you can understand that psychological pain is normal and, at times, inevitable, so adjusting your mindset can allow you to live a happier life. In fact, by working towards acceptance of the presence of discomfort, you will likely notice that your suffering (fighting against the reality of whatever is present), dissipates. For example, let’s say you forgot a friend’s birthday. You may have the thought that you’re bad for doing that, and perhaps the emotions of shame and embarrassment are present. We can agree that’s not a great feeling. However, focusing on how you “shouldn’t” have done that and trying to “get rid” of your unpleasant emotions by avoiding that friend will only make you feel worse. Why, you ask? Well, the only reason you were bothered that you forgot the occasion was because that person meant something to you. If you search within yourself and figure out what the value is behind the distress (maybe friendship, or caring), you will be able to put your finger on the pain point. The good news is, you can do something about that! Call your friend, tell them how you care about them, apologize, and wish them a belated birthday. They will feel loved and you will be moving toward what matters. See how that works?

Understanding Range of Human Experience

Difficult experiences and complicated emotions are part of the human experience. There’s no way we can avoid these challenges in life, yet so many of us try to dodge our true feelings and avoid uncomfortable scenarios whenever possible. Essentially, we try to forcefully subvert and move on from our feelings, but this only leads to further stress, anxiety, and sadness.

ACT helps you understand and accept that pain is simply part of living. As a result, you can adapt more quickly. When you’re open to more than one type of experience, you are less derailed by them. This is how ACT can help you cultivate what psychologists call, “psychological flexibility”. This is the heart of ACT and will help you develop a healthy and resilient perspective on life and your experience of it.

Define Your Own Values

Even when times are tough, acting according to your personal values can boost your psychological resilience and help you find calm amid emotional turbulence. Through ACT, you will have the opportunity to hone in on your own values. In addition, your values and principles will serve as a guide for your actions when you’re facing a challenge. Think of your values like your life compass that can serve as beacons of meaning guiding you through rough terrain.

Positive Behavioral Changes

Have you ever found it hard to communicate healthily, calm yourself down, or figure out your next steps when you’re dealing with a challenge? Learning how to develop healthy emotional reactions is the key to overcoming difficult moments.

By working with ACT techniques, you’ll learn to modify your behavior when things aren’t going swimmingly. You can master healthy behavioral changes that make it easier to manage challenging situations. Instead of panicking, feeling discouraged, or trying to walk away from a challenge, you can trust yourself to act productively.

Develop a Sense of Presence

It can be hard to simply live in the moment. For example, when things are going wrong, you might catch yourself reflecting on a past that seemed much better than your present. Or you may try to escape into the future and envision yourself enjoying life again when the situation has passed. ACT can help you change this cycle by teaching you to practice presence and mindfulness.

By learning to accept the present moment, you can reduce your stress and anxiety. So, naturally, acceptance is an integral part of ACT. Getting used to staying present and being mindful even under duress is a significant benefit of this approach to therapy.

Practice Healthy Detachment

Detachment doesn’t mean a lack of care or emotional connection. It means understanding that your thoughts don’t define you, and they’ll eventually pass. You might find it hard to respond to a challenge in an emotionally healthy way if you get stuck in negative thought patterns. For instance, you might catch yourself thinking there’s no way to solve the problem, your circumstances will never get better, or that this situation defines you forever.

By letting go of these thoughts, you’ll be able to respond effectively and live by your values rather than temporary thoughts. ACT helps you change your relationship to your thoughts, understand that they are not the same thing as “you”, and teaches you to take language with which you speak you yourself less seriously.

If this sounds appealing to you, ACT is a good fit for you in terms of therapeutic approach. While it is a fresh way of approaching emotional and behavioral problems, it is an evidence-based therapy; firmly grounded in psychological science. ACT has been proven extremely effective in treating trauma and PTSD, depression, anxiety, anger, and much more.