Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is a type of therapy that teaches you to accept your thoughts and feelings rather than try to control them. In this article, we detail how it works, who it can help, and where to find further resources.

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What is ACT?

ACT is a type of therapy based on the idea that our thoughts and feelings are temporary and ever-changing.

Just like the waves of the ocean rise and fall, ACT teaches us that we can ride out difficult inner experiences without being swept away by them.

When we’re not so attached to our thoughts and feelings, we can make better choices that enrich our lives.

ACT can give you strategies to deal with negative thoughts and accept the difficulties that come with life. For example, if you’ve been avoiding social events because of thoughts like 'no one likes me, I won't have anyone to talk to’, ACT can help you to build behaviours that will make it easier to go to social events. Or if your boss or coworker is a constant source of stress, ACT can give you strategies to be better able to cope.

How does ACT work?

ACT can help you win the war against negative thoughts and feelings by helping you tolerate them rather than control them.

When you accept and gain distance from your thoughts and emotions, they lose some of their power over you.

This helps you respond to them in healthier, more adaptive ways.

ACT may also help you to:

  • Accept your thoughts and feelings, even if they are unpleasant
  • See your thoughts as thoughts rather than facts
  • Pay attention to what is happening right now without judgement
  • Identify what is important to you in life
  • Take action towards your values, even when it is difficult
  • Be open to new experiences and willing to embrace and make changes when necessary.
We're so quick to label feelings as good or bad, and I had to unlearn that. For me, feelings are signposts, giving me an indication of what's going on beneath.
  • How ACT might help you manage anxiety

    Imagine you have recently started a new job and are feeling anxious about speaking up during team meetings because you're worried that your ideas might be rejected and your colleagues won't take you seriously.

    This fear of being judged is holding you back from actively participating in important discussions.

    ACT can help you to accept your anxious thoughts without allowing them to control your actions. It can help you better understand your values and how they can help you overcome your fear of being judged.

    By doing this, you can gradually become more comfortable and confident in expressing your ideas during team meetings.

    Over time, you can develop better communication skills, and your active participation can strengthen your relationships with colleagues and boost your professional development.

  • How ACT might help you manage substance misuse

    Imagine you're grappling with substance misuse and find yourself trapped in a cycle of guilt, cravings, and avoidance. With ACT, you learn to view your cravings and guilt not as enemies to be defeated but as experiences to be acknowledged and accepted.

    Through mindfulness exercises, you learn how to stay present, experiencing your cravings without automatically reacting to them. It's not easy at first—it means facing discomfort. But this acceptance can help reduce the power these feelings have over you.

    ACT also involves identifying your core values, the things that matter most to you. Perhaps you value health, family, or personal growth. Instead of letting your substance use control your actions, you learn to commit to actions that align with these values.

    For example, if health is a key value for you, a small step could be to incorporate a daily walk into your routine. This doesn't mean cravings or guilt feelings will disappear instantly, but it enables you to live a fulfilling life in spite of them, reducing the control they have over you.

  • How ACT might help you manage feelings of depression

    Imagine you’re struggling with a deep sense of sadness and lack of motivation, which might make you avoid social interactions and things you used to enjoy.

    The primary goal of ACT would be to help you accept these feelings instead of struggling with them, to identify your values and what truly matters to you, and to commit to actions that bring your life in line with these values.

    In the ‘acceptance’ phase, you might acknowledge these feelings of sadness are a part of your current experience rather than something to be fought against or eradicated and learn strategies to stay present with these feelings without judgement.

    Then you might work to identify your core values, for instance, that connection with others and creativity are important to you. You might have used to enjoy painting before you stopped doing it regularly.

    Lastly, in the ‘commitment’ phase, you might be encouraged to make small, manageable commitments that align with your values. Despite feelings of sadness, you might start to paint for 10 minutes each day and reach out to a friend once a week. This doesn’t mean the sadness goes away immediately, but ACT can help you still have a fulfilling life while co-existing with these feelings.

ACT strategies

ACT consists of six strategies. These are designed to improve your coping skills and help you live authentically.

Below you'll find information about these strategies and how they work.

  • Acceptance
  • Thought defusion
  • Contact with the present moment
  • Values
  • Committed action
  • Flexibility

What does ACT treat?

ACT can be used to treat a range of mental health problems, including the following:

What ACT doesn’t treat

  • Crisis situations

    ACT is not suitable if you’re experiencing a mental or emotional crisis. If you’re having suicidal thoughts, engaging in self-harm, or hearing and seeing things that others cannot, it’s important to get immediate support. If in crisis, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14, text us on 0477 13 11 14, or chat to us online anytime.

  • Severe trauma
  • Domestic and family violence experiences

What might happen in an ACT session?

As in any typical therapy session, an ACT session usually begins with a check-in, where the psychologist and yourself will discuss how you are feeling and what you would like to work on in the session.

What might happen in your session will depend on your personal needs and goals for therapy.

Your sessions may include any of the following:

  • Learning more about your thoughts, feelings, and behaviour and how these are connected
  • Exploring your values and coming up with ways to act in alignment with them
  • Learning to accept, experience, and move on from painful emotions and experiences
  • Learning how to distance yourself from unhelpful thoughts and beliefs
  • Putting plans in place to help you reach your goals and overcome obstacles
  • Learning mindfulness skills. For example, your psychologist might get you to do activities that help you practise paying attention to the present moment.
  • A discussion of homework activities to practise the things you learn in session in the real world.

The benefits of ACT

When it comes to the different types of therapies, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. The benefits listed below are specific to ACT and can help you decide if you’d like to try it:

  • It helps you focus on what you can control, like acting in ways that align with your values. This means that it can help you improve your life, not by making all of your problems disappear, but by making your life more meaningful.
  • It helps you think in a more flexible way. This can help you adapt to challenging situations better. Instead of becoming overwhelmed or stuck, you’re able to see different perspectives and come up with creative solutions.
  • It normalises the experience of negative emotions and reminds you that you are not alone in experiencing them. This can reduce the suffering caused by avoiding your feelings or bottling them up.

It can help in the treatment of a wide range of issues, including depression, anxiety, addiction, chronic pain, and stress.

If you’re still unsure if ACT is right for you, that’s okay. A psychologist can talk to you about other types of therapies and make suggestions about which option might be best for you based on your needs and goals. If you don’t have a psychologist, speaking to a GP is a great place to start.

There are many resources out there that can help you understand more about ACT, including how it works and how to try it yourself.

You can read books, take courses, complete worksheets or workbooks, and even use mobile apps. Here are some examples to get you started:

  • Books about ACT
  • ACT courses
  • ACT workbooks
  • Apps
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