Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is a kind of behavioural therapy that uses mindfulness to develop psychological flexibility, which further helps direct value-guided behaviour.

Through metaphor, paradox, and experiential exercises clients are taught to make healthy contact with thoughts, feelings, memories, and sensations that they might fear and avoid.

Clients develop skills to recontextualise and accept their upsetting or painful thoughts and feelings. Moreover they develop greater clarity about personal values, and commit to needed behaviour change. This helps them start to feel more peace within themselves.

This therapy gets its name from its core theme: to show acceptance for what is out of your personal control and to commit to actions that improve your life.

Relational frame theory (RFT)

Acceptance and commitment therapy is a third wave therapy which is a directive and experiential in nature. It is based on the underlying scientific theory of human language and cognition of the Relational frame theory.

This theory stems from the philosophy of functional contextualism. This is in contrast to the mechanistic philosophy which aims to “fix” the “problems” or “symptoms”. ACT does not describe its clients as flawed but instead focuses on finding the function and context of behaviour. This includes thoughts, emotions, actions, memories and sensation. The usefulness of this behaviour is determined in order to help create rich and meaningful lives.

ACT founder Steven Hayes talked about it in a book chapter he wrote some years back and he says:

“I sometimes ask my clients to name one thing in the physical universe that they can’t find fault with. Usually they can’t. Then I ask, “So why should you be an exception?”

If the “you” one takes oneself to be is this observer “you,” these rules of self-worth are handled fairly easily. . . . Only things can be evaluated, and at the deepest level one cannot experience oneself in the sense of “you as perspective” to be a thing.”

Aim of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

ACT aims to maximise human potential in order to help us lead happy, full and meaningful lives.

Acceptance should not be confused with approval and ACT teaches this skill with the help of mindfulness sessions. ACT teaches you the ability to accept things just the way they are without any critical evaluation or making any attempts to change them.

ACT does not change unwanted thoughts or feelings like cognitive behaviour therapy but rather attempts to help you develop a mindful relation with these feelings and set you free to take an action consistent with your values.

It does this by working on:

·   Psychological skills: It teaches you the psychological skills to help you deal effectively with painful thoughts and feelings. These mindfulness skills ensure that the pain has much less impact on you.

·   Values: It helps you recognise what is truly important to you and how much your values matter to you. ACT then utilises this knowledge to help inspire and motivate you to change your life for the better.

Six core processes

The goal of ACT is psychological flexibility and it works on six core processes. These six processes should be considered overlapping and connected. They are developed experientially through the course of ACT. So psychological flexibility can simply be defined as the ability to be present fully as a conscious human being, open up and change or persist a behaviour based on values that matters to you. The six core processes that ACT works on are:

1.     Contact with the present moment

2.     Self-as-context

3.     Defusion

4.     Acceptance

5.     Values

6.     Committed action

Mindfulness and ACT:

Mindfulness means being completely aware of the present moment without judgement. It is a mental state of focus, awareness and openness.  It enables you to get in touch with your “observing self” or “contextual self”, which the part separated from your “thinking self”. Mindfulness techniques bring awareness to all the five senses, thoughts or emotions.

ACT breaks down mindfulness into three categories:

1.     Defusion: this involves the process of detaching and letting go of painful thoughts, memories, beliefs and feelings.

2.     Acceptance: This involves making room for the painful feelings, urges and sensations. This allows them to come and leave without putting up a fight.

3.     Contact with present moment:  It involves engaging fully with your present experience and developing an attitude of openness and curiosity.

These three steps enable you to you to use an aspect of yourself that is capable of awareness and attention which is described as the “observing self”. This is the part of your existence that is aware of both your conscious thinking self and the subconscious. So once you explore this aspect of yourself, you are open to pure awareness.

Clarification of values and ACT

Once you have a clear understanding of what you want to do, you have clear values. It involves doing what matters to you the most. This is achieved in ACT with the help of various values. This will help you identify the chosen values to which you can direct your intentional behaviour.

People who carry the baggage of thoughts and painful emotions face interference with choosing purposeful and value-guided action. Mindfulness liberates them from this struggle. Thus they find acting according to their values naturally fulfilling.

photo credit: mindfulness 

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