Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT (pronounced in one word), was developed by Dr. Steven Hayes and his research team and has, in the last decade or so, become one of the leading mindfulness-based interventions. One of its biggest strengths is that it is an evidence-based psychotherapy, with literally dozens of peer-reviewed research articles being published every month investigating its effectiveness in a wide range of contexts. Although based on a cognitive-behavioural framework, it is heavily influenced by mindfulness concepts. Like other mindfulness-based interventions, ACT is not focused on changing unpleasant events or reducing symptoms, but rather to learn how we can make room for them and live a good life in spite of them. However, unlike other mindfulness-based therapies that involve long hours of formal meditation, ACT targets specific skills that can help cope with distressing events through brief exercises. This is especially helpful for those who are having difficulty meditating for long periods of time. These skills are based on the premise that distressing experiences are inevitable so learning how to cope with them is important, and that doing so allows us to live richer and more meaningful lives. The therapy consists in learning 6 skills, some of which focus on how to cope with unpleasant events, and others on how to live a meaningful life by making wise decisions.
The first skill targets the destructive potential of thoughts. Being fused with thoughts means buying into them, or taking them literally. Conversely, being ‘de-fused’ from them means perceiving thoughts as simply thoughts, no more, no less. Defusing ourselves from thoughts that we have allows us to create some distance between our troubling thoughts and ourselves. This doesn’t mean getting rid of them but helps remove the emotional impact that they have on us. There are plenty of defusion exercises, for instance, a distressing thought such as “I’m a loser” can be repeated very rapidly until it loses its meaning, or can be tagged on after the stem “I am having the thought that…”, which also helps realize that it is just a thought passing through awareness and is not necessarily an accurate representation of reality.
2. The Observing Self
After some practice defusing oneself from unhelpful thoughts, we begin to notice that there are thoughts and there is an awareness of these thoughts, and that they are not the same thing. It soon becomes experientially apparent that while experiences continuously come and go, the awareness of these transient experiences itself is consistent and unchanging. Redefining oneself as the observer of experiences rather than as the experiences themselves, allows us to feel less directed by thoughts and thus freer to act volitionally. To facilitate understanding of this unusual concept, certain metaphors are used, such as comparing the self as a chessboard and thoughts as the pieces on the chessboard.
Having a range of experiences, even bad ones, is normal and part of being human. What creates distress is resisting these experiences and trying to avoid them. Another skill that is taught in ACT is being willing to allow all experiences, even unpleasant ones, to co-exist with us in every moment. Accepting unpleasant events is easier said than done but becomes easier the more it is practiced.
4. Contact with the Present Moment
Ultimately, life is always unfolding right now. So to live a rich and full life we have to be here now for it. By practicing accepting one’s experiences as they are, it becomes easier to remain for extended periods of time in the present moment. By doing so, not only are we enriching our life experience, we are also no longer avoiding troubling situations but learning to live with them.
In order to live a meaningful life, it is essential to identify our deepest values and subsequently behave according to them. Identifying values requires taking the time to ask ourselves what is truly important to us.
6. Committed Action
Knowing what is important to us is not enough to live a meaningful life. The important last step is to commit to acting in accordance to these values despite the many obstacles that life regularly throws our way.
In essence, ACT is a means to become more aware or what we are experiencing from moment to moment, and more aware of what we truly care about. By no longer getting caught up in automatic (and often unhelpful) thoughts and actions, we develop the ability to become more flexible in the decisions we make and ultimately the way we chose to live our life. Our actions are made more consciously and are guided by what is deeply important to us.