What is Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT)?

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Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT) gets its name from one of its core messages: accept what is out of your control and commit to action that improves your life.

How does ACT help?

ACT’s primary aim is to help people create a rich, full, and meaningful life, while effectively dealing with the pain and stress that life inevitably brings.

The term ‘acceptance’ in ACT is often misunderstood to mean that ACT does not encourage people to change things. But ACT only encourages us to accept things that we cannot change, such as our automatic thoughts and emotions. ACT strongly encourages us to change what we can control … our actions.

Understanding our values & taking action

ACT also helps us decide which actions we should take by identifying what our values are. If we spend our lives acting in line with our values and doing what is important to us then we will feel more fulfilled by life and we will feel happier overall.  

It can be difficult to decide what our values are because each of us may have a very different set of values. ACT doesn’t judge one set of values as being better than another set of values (providing we are not deliberately harming others). A person whose values include creativity, learning, family and health and fitness is no more or less valid than a person whose values include helping others, spirituality, fairness, and curiosity.

The challenge of living life by our values is that this often brings us unpleasant thoughts and emotions. And the more we care about something the stronger our thoughts and emotions become.

ACT says that trying to control or avoid unpleasant automatic thoughts or feelings usually leads to even more unpleasant thoughts and feelings. Trying to control or avoid unpleasant automatic thoughts or emotions is also the main reason why we do things we would rather not do such as drinking, eating too much or overthinking. Fortunately, ACT can teach us core skills or processes that improve our psychological flexibility so that we are able to do the things we care about even if this brings unpleasant thoughts and emotions.

6 Core Processes in ACT

ACT’s six core processes are shown in the diagram below. Two of these processes, values and committed action we have already discussed. The other processes are cognitive defusion, acceptance, contact with the present moment, and the observing self.

Cognitive defusion

Cognitive defusion means learning to step back and separate from thoughts, images, and memories instead of arguing with them or trying to get rid of them. We can learn to see our thoughts as just words, pictures, or stories rather than truths or rules that must be obeyed.

Acceptance

Acceptance in ACT, means allowing emotions to come and go without struggling with them. This is a skill that we can learn and improve.

Contact with the present moment

Contact with the present moment means staying in the present moment rather than thinking about the past or future. If we are fully aware in the present moment it is easier to act in line with our values rather than being pushed around by our thoughts and feelings.

Self-as-context or the observing self

The observing self means seeing ourselves as observers of our thoughts and emotions, rather than being defined by them.

What happens in ACT sessions?

At Share Resolve our psychologists will start by having an open, free flowing discussion about your life, any difficulties you are facing and what you are hoping to get out of meeting with us. Most people find it difficult to explain emotional issues in a clear logical way so, when necessary, we will ask questions to clarify or help further understand what you are going through.

Once we have a better understanding we explain our approach and how we plan to help. The number of sessions that people need to learn the skills in ACT, start using them and troubleshoot them so that life improves varies greatly.  On average, it usually takes between six to eight sessions but the number of sessions depends on the nature of the problems that people are facing.

We tailor the ACT intervention to each person’s particular needs so it’s difficult to give a session-by-session explanation of what will happen when you meet us. You will learn the skills described above but the order in which we teach them varies as we identify which of the six core processes will be most useful for you to learn first. Although there are skills to learn meeting with a skilled therapist who uses ACT often feels like having a really good informative conversation rather than a ‘lesson’.

ACT is collaborative which means that you and the therapist work together to help you get the most out of life. You are the expert on your own life and we bring the knowledge of the skills and processes and our experience of helping many other people use them. You can always ask us what we are intending to do and why.    

How does ACT compare with CBT?

ACT is often grouped together with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). CBT is the most well-known and well-researched therapy in the world today (you can read more about it in our article here). ACT was developed more recently than CBT but it already has thousands of research papers supporting its effectiveness.

Similarities between ACT & CBT

ACT & CBT are both based on behaviourism which is a scientifically supported theory that says that our actions are shaped by our environment. Behaviourism says we can learn through association, for example we may feel happy when we hear a particular tune because it is linked to happy times (classical conditioning), and we can learn by being rewarded or punished (operant conditioning).

The fact that ACT & CBT are both based on behaviourism means that someone going for therapy with a CBT therapist and someone going for therapy with an ACT therapist may end up doing similar things. For example, both the ACT and CBT therapist would show someone with a phobia of heights how to gradually experience higher and higher locations. If someone was feeling depressed both the ACT and CBT therapist would help them to do more potentially enjoyable activities.

Differences between ACT & CBT

There are also significant differences between CBT and ACT. CBT aims to directly reduce distressing thoughts and feelings whereas ACT aims to help people respond differently to their thoughts and feelings so that they can get the most out of life which makes us happier overall and indirectly reduces distressing thoughts and feelings.

CBT focuses on changing the content of our thoughts whereas ACT focuses on changing how we respond to those thoughts. For example, CBT would try to help someone struggling with the thought ‘I’m not good enough’, by helping the person see all the evidence that shows that they are good enough. ACT helps by showing the person how to notice the thought and avoid getting caught up with it so they can spend more time doing what’s important to them. ACT believes by not arguing with the thought, the thought will become less significant to us overtime. 

Should I choose ACT or CBT?

All the psychologists at Share Resolve are fully trained and experienced in helping people using CBT. Some of us, including Dr Dan, Athena, Carmen and Marianne prefer to use ACT as our primary approach. Both are CBT and ACT are highly effective so there’s no bad choice and there’s no pressure on you to select an approach – your psychologist will usually select the approach that they think will be the most effective for you (you can ask them to explain the approach they are going to use with you if you are interested). If you have a strong personal preference for ACT you can ask our administrator Kae to assign you to someone who prefers to work with ACT.  

Arrange an ACT Consultation

If you are interested in ACT therapy, please contact Kae to arrange an appointment with one of our clinical psychologists who specialises in ACT. You can call or send a WhatsApp message to 012 5089910. You can also email Kae at info@resolve.my.


Further Information on ACT …

Further Information on this Topic

Listed below are links to other websites and resources that give more information about Acceptance & Commitment Therapy.

If you know of any other websites or resources please let us know in the comments section below so that we can add them to the list.

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Russ Harris’ ACT Mindfully Website

Russ Harris is a leading trainer in ACT and wrote the best selling book ‘The Happiness Trap’ which is a great introduction to ACT.

Association for Contextual Behavioural Science

ACBS is the main organisation for practitioners of Acceptance & Commitment Therapy. So the website is more geared towards practitioners.

Steve Hayes Website

Steve Hayes is the co-developer of Acceptance & Commitment Therapy. His website has resources and information about ACT.

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