What is Acceptance & Commitment Therapy: ACT?
ACT is a “third-wave of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).” CBT relies on the idea that our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are interrelated and aims to intervene at the level of cognition, or thought, to change automatic thoughts, which are often negative thought patterns. For example, say a friend doesn't return a text message. What might you think? Perhaps you tell yourself that they’re busy, or you might assume that they’re upset with you or not interested in your friendship. These are examples of catastrophizing, or imagining the worst-case scenario to be true. There are many types of cognitive distortions: catastrophizing and jumping to conclusions are most common. Traditional CBT therapists work with individuals to change their automatic, or unhelpful, thought patterns with the goal of helping people develop healthier, more realistic ways of thinking, which then positively impacts their emotions and behaviors.
ACT differs from traditional CBT in that the focus is not on changing your thought patterns, but rather learning to relate to your thoughts in a different way or creating distance between yourself and your thought patterns, a process we call defusion, so that they can be seen for what they are, mental events rather than facts or absolute truths; this is accomplished through the use of mindfulness, or the observance of thoughts and emotions without overidentifying with them. Observing your thoughts and emotions without becoming fused or entangled with them can help create behavioral flexibility or the ability to peruse things that are valuable to you rather than letting difficult thoughts or feelings get in the way. The overarching goal of ACT is to help individuals live a full and meaningful life while recognizing that pain is a part of the human experience.
How can ACT help?
ACT is evidence-based, meaning that it has been researched, and is empirically supported for a range of different issues including stress, depression, anxiety, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), substance abuse, eating disorders, chronic pain, chronic illness, and even psychosis. You can learn more about the empirical support for ACT here.
"Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally."
To put it simply, mindfulness is awareness, or being present, with whatever is a part of your experience, thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, whether they are pleasant or unpleasant with an attitude of openness and acceptance.
How can Mindfulness help?
Mindfulness has also been researched and is associated with a large range of benefits including stress reduction and decreased rumination or unproductive cycles of negative thoughts that are often associated with depression. Mindfulness has also been shown to decrease emotional reactivity and increase cognitive flexibility or the ability to think about things in a healthier, more adaptive way. Mindfulness is also associated with relationship satisfaction and protects against relationship conflict. It has also been found to boost memory and focus. You can learn more about the benefits of mindfulness here.