Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ACT, is a cognitive-behavioural psychotherapeutic approach that has helped many people overcome challenges and live a more valued and vital life. ACT focuses on helping individuals unhook from difficult thoughts and feelings - the things that hurt - and to more fully engage in life-enhancing and valued activities - the things that matter. Like CBT, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy recognizes how our relationship to thoughts, feelings, and behaviours can influence our ability to cope with psychological distress and difficulty.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy often will include the following elements:
An ACT therapist can help you clarify who and what matters to you in your life, goals that are meaningful to you, and life directions you would like to move towards. Clarification of values is combined with work to address barriers that get in the way of you moving towards what matters. Values clarification can be facilitated through interactive dialogue, experiential practices in session, and exercises that you might engage in between sessions. For example, an ACT therapist might take you through the Bull's Eye exercise, in which you would be invited to reflect on four domains of life (work/school, leisure, relationships, and personal growth), identify behaviours that would be important for you in a given domain (i.e. spending more time with friends), and work with you to develop a plan to help you engage more in those behaviours. The idea here is that the more one is able to engage in life in a way that is meaningful for them, the more psychological well being increases.
"Why does this matter to me?"
Challenges with anxiety, anger, stress, and overwhelm have a way of reducing our involvement with the things that are important to us. When we're having a hard time, we focus much of our energy on addressing the difficulties facing us and we can lose touch with what really matters. For example, while facing a build-up of work, overdue projects, and financial stress, it becomes a lot harder to prioritize things like exercise, spending time with our loved ones, or engagement in spiritual pursuits. Life becomes all about putting out fires… and often the fires keep coming back in a never-ending cycle.
Putting Life on Hold
Many people caught in this cycle end up putting their lives on hold until some unspecified time in the future when hopefully the fire will be put out. “I just need to get through tax season and then I can relax…”, “It will be stressful while I go through school but then I’ll spend more time with my friends again…”, “I just need time to get some financial stability and then I can work less…”. For many, this thought process goes on in perpetuity without them ever finding that ‘perfect’ time where they can actually relax, actually spend time with friends, or actually implement their ideal work-life schedule.
There's No Time Like the Present
From an ACT perspective, the goal isn’t to wait for situations, thoughts, or feelings to change until you can begin living your life, the goal is to start doing what is important to you, right here and right now. “Yes, tax season is here and you need to deal with it...and let’s look at how you can also make room for self-care too...”, “Yes, you’re juggling a lot with school and work… and let’s look at some small ways at least that you can make sure you’re keeping in touch with the people that matter.”, “Yes, you’re in a tight financial space… and let’s look at how you can make time for the other things that matter to you too, while you continue to look at ways to address those challenges.” Making time for your life, for the things that matter to you is not just a bonus… it is what keeps us aware of the bigger picture, feeling well, and what motivates us to keep moving in the face of challenges that come up.
Changing the Thought-Feeling-Self Relationship
Learning new ways to relate to your thoughts, feelings, and even your ‘self’ is an essential part of ACT work. An ACT therapist can help you recognize when and where you are getting ‘fused’ with unhelpful thoughts, feelings, and ideas, and teach you how to enter into a different relationship with the content of your mind and the sensations of your body. Rather than experiencing anxiety as a command to avoid, anger as a demand to act, or self-criticism as the truth of your whole experience and being, ACT can help you move to a more ‘defused’ mode of operation. From this mode, thoughts, feelings, and ideas are just that - and not literal truths we need to follow or that need dictate our behaviour. It is not necessarily easy work, but it is certainly life-changing.
"Why does this matter to me?"
When we are experiencing challenges with anger, anxiety, and stress, we are often also experiencing our thoughts, feelings, and ideas from a problematic perspective. We might view our thoughts and feelings as hard facts (“When I’m upset I just need to say something!”) and our self-concept as fixed (“It’s true… I am a loser). This in turn limits our available behavioural options.
Our Relationship to Thoughts Can Be Limiting
If I believe that having an angry thought means I need to engage in anger-related behaviour then when an angry thought shows up, I will generally engage in anger-related behaviour. If I believe that I truly am a loser, I will be less likely to try activities that fall outside the expected actions a loser might take and more likely to engage in behaviours that are consistent with my own self-definition as a loser (i.e. harmful or life-limiting behaviours, the definition of which would be influenced by my values and my ideas of what being a loser means). When we take our thoughts, feelings, and self-concept ideas at face value and as literal truths, we can be said to be ‘fused’ with our own experience. While operating from a fused perspective is not always bad, in moments of anger, anxiety, and stress it can be helpful to learn how to shift into a more ‘defused’ perspective; one in which we are able to step back, observe our thoughts, feelings, and self-judgments and decide if following them is useful in this moment.
Carrying Thoughts and Feelings Along for the Ride
Imagine if you could experience the feeling of anger and still choose to stay present for a difficult conversation, making a move towards your values of commitment, caring, and distress tolerance. Or, consider what it would be like to experience anxiety… your heart pounding, your palms sweating, your mind racing with thoughts and predictions of your impending failure as a candidate - and reminders of your past failures too! - and show up to an interview you’ve been dreading, while moving towards your goal of having a meaningful career and your values around creativity, success, and financial responsibility. Moves like these are moves made under the influence of defusion, acceptance, mindful experiencing, and the observing self - core ACT processes that can help you live your life with more flexibility, balance, and ease. An ACT therapist can help you move into this kind of relationship with your thoughts, feelings, and self ideas and move towards what matters to you.
A Collaborative Relationship, Skills Training, Wonky Exercises, and Metaphors and More
ACT is a flexible and process-based approach that allows for the development of a close relationship with significant adaptability that can be made targeted to your needs, preferences, and goals for therapy. ACT practitioners are taught to recognize that all of us are prone to fall into the same kind of mindtraps and difficulties and to view the therapeutic relationship between therapist and client as collaborative and equal. Psychotherapy sessions in ACT can be quite engaging and many metaphors, experiential exercises, and zany or unusual - yet evidence-based - processes are used to help you integrate and easily remember the skills, tools, and concepts that your therapist explores with you.
The principles and techniques of ACT can help you deal with anger, anxiety, and other intense emotions more effectively, reduce emotional struggles and difficulty and live life with increased vitality and ease. Within this approach, you will learn how to hold your thoughts lightly, yourself kindly, and your values closely. If you'd like to learn how you can better move in this direction, book a consult with one of our therapists today. We offer in-person sessions in Toronto and remote sessions for anyone in Ontario.