What is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy?
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (‘ACT’) is a form of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) that defines ‘mental illness’ as the experience of being dominated by the drive to protect ourselves from pain. This often leads to disconnection from the present and the inability to act in accordance with our values. As we drift further away from what we care about most, this also compounds overarching feelings of distress in the long run.
The essence of ACT is developing the ability to shift our perspective on thoughts and feelings to one that allows us to respond flexibly, rather than as a direct reaction to our emotional impulses. After learning ACT, clients’ actions are more often driven by conscious choices, and an awareness of what it would look like to live by their values. ACT clients can learn the skills to move beyond allowing emotional impulses to dictate their reactions to a situation.
An important element of ACT is the ability to ‘be’ with and observe unpleasant thoughts and feelings. Another word for this is ‘mindfulness’. When we cannot be mindful with difficult thoughts and feelings, we often go to great lengths trying to change them or distract ourselves. We can then end up in circular arguments inside our heads, avoid situations that are ‘triggers’ for unpleasant thoughts and feelings, or develop addictions to substances or certain activities that give us a short-term ‘hit’ of dopamine (the pleasure hormone). We also often judge ourselves harshly for having these unpleasant emotions and reactions, further compounding our emotional pain. When we can learn to distance ourselves from our emotions and judgments on a regular basis through mindfulness, we free ourselves up to react differently when they arise.
ACT is not about ignoring our feelings or thoughts and pretending they aren’t there, it is about understanding ourselves better - what we care about most, what upsets us most, how our emotions affect our behaviour, and what effects these behaviour patterns have on our decision-making. It is also about learning to accept whatever experiences or emotions we are having in the present, and being able to move on from them in the most helpful way possible, rather than trying to control something that is ultimately uncontrollable.
If you are interested in exploring whether ACT would be a useful therapy framework for you, please give me a call on 0412 829 841 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more.