Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
“When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less important whether I am afraid.”
— Alfred Lorde
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a relatively new psychological intervention that has recently gained much support and respect
(see this article if you are interested in reviewing the evidence related to ACT). ACT is now widely used to address a variety of psychological and physical complaints, and as a therapeutic approach, is quite distinct from the more traditional treatment methods. ACT proposes that much human suffering is actually related to our attempts to control and/or avoid difficult internal experiences, such as emotions, thoughts, or physical sensations (referred to in ACT as ‘private events’). This perspective differs greatly from many other therapies which actually try to teach clients ways to control private events. Although the reason why we attempt to avoid or control difficult private events is clear (who wants to feel miserable right?), ACT suggests that, paradoxically, these attempts lead to more suffering and to the development of long term negative outcomes.
Perhaps an example will more clearly illustrate this point. Consider a person who begins feeling nervous and anxious in relation to their work performance. Perhaps they initially try and control this anxiety by telling themselves to “just calm down!” or to “stop being so stupid”. When these attempts fail, their anxiety is further intensified as they begin to feel like they’re not in control. They then try numbing the anxiety with drugs or alcohol; however soon find the anxiety returns. Eventually they may decide to quit to escape the anxiety, despite the job being something they truly value. Although they have escaped the anxiety temporarily, next time they are in a similar situation they will inevitably experience similar difficulties, and will probably employ similar coping strategies (i.e. dropping out of life). This situation is a classic example of how control and avoidance of difficult private events can lead to their intensification.
“When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”
Wayne Dyer —
So what’s the alternative? We’ve got to get rid of the anxiety right? Wrong. This is a common misconception that people often have. People frequently come to therapy stating “I’ve got to learn how to get rid of/have better control over my emotions/thoughts/physical sensations so that I can…..”. The answer is not to get rid of anxiety, or any other emotion for that matter. Being sad, or scared, or angry, or worried is a completely natural experience in some situations and a part of being human. ACT proposes that it is society’s labelling of such emotions as “negative” or “bad” that is partly responsible for why we all try so hard to control and/or avoid them.
So… what is the alternative then??? ACT proposes that it is not our private events that we need to get rid of or change, but it is the way we relate to our private events that we need to reconsider. People tend to give their private events too much power when deciding how they will behave. For example, a thought such as “everyone will think I’m stupid” may lead to a student not showing up to do an important presentation. Or a person who is feeing down may decide to cancel a catch up with their friends, despite craving connection.
ACT suggests that as humans, we ultimately have power over how we live our lives, and that our deeply held values should dictate how we behave, not our momentary private events. A commonly used quote to illustrate this principal is “feel the fear, and do it anyway”. Although this may sound simple, it is important to emphasise that it is far from easy. Learning to change the way we relate to our private events is something that takes time, practice and effort. When engaging in ACT, the psychologist will teach the client many skills that will make this more achievable such as mindfulness, cognitive defusion, and acceptance strategies.
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”
— Reinhold Niebuhr
If you would like to further explore ACT with one of our psychologists contact Vitalise today.
- Click herefor a simple, non-technical, easy-to-read overview of ACT writted by Dr Russ Harris
- Click herefor a more technical overview article of ACT written by Dr Steven Hayes
Click herefor a more technical overview article of ACT written by Dr Steven Hayes
Dr Russ Harris discussing ACT