Acceptance And Commitment Therapy – An Elegant & Powerful Psychological Model

ACT or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is something that I'd heard of probably many years ago, but for some reason only just recently started to learn about and apply to my life. I guess challenging times will pique your interest to things which can help you, and you'll be more finely tuned to the methods and tools that are right for you.

Here I'll be giving a brief intro into Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (often referred to as ACT) and what it's all about, along with some of the main conceptual frameworks, and I'll discuss a little of my experience with this powerful, and elegant theory (and practice) for both dealing with life's inevitable challenges, whilst also being the person who you'd like to be and going after your goals in life.

This is what's referred to as “psychological flexibility” – and It's great stuff, so let's get started.

Below you'll find links to the main sections of this page, so for added convenience you can simply select an area that's of more interest to you, if reading from top to bottom isn't your thing:

What Is It? An Introduction To Acceptance And Commitment Therapy

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is a model of therapy that basis itself on the concept that we have far less control over our thoughts and feelings than we are taught, and it's this false idea of control, and the struggling against unwanted internal experiences and their consequences that causes us far more trouble than the thoughts and feelings themselves, if truly allowed to be in our experience, and not given too much energy.

This then frees us up immensely to begin focusing ourselves in the direction of our desires, instead of wasting energy on fighting things that we cannot change (for example willing a thought to go away that you're already having, simply does not work, as I'm sure you're aware of by now).

Simply put, the many tools and concepts that makeup the ACT model allow us to be freer in our actions, and stop wasting time creating more suffering for ourselves.

A Brief History Of ACT

The early forms of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy were first conceptualized in the early 1980's by Stephen C. Hayes. Hayes was the one to initially theorize upon the model and bring together its varying parts into one cohesive approach for helping to treat clients.

Founder-of-ACT-Steven-Hayes

Founder of the ACT model – Steven C. Hayes – Excellent video of his TED talk below!

It was first tested in a clinical setting in 1985 by Professor of Psychology, Robert Zettle. It wasn't until the late 80's though, that the model was developed into something similar to its current form, and began to be used more regularly in the treatment of clients for various psychological issues.

Since that time its steadily gained in popularity, and more recently in the last few years, especially with the release of the very popular book “The Happiness Trap” (Amazon paperback link – book published in 2008) from Australian based ACT therapist and coach Russ Harris. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy appeals to many because of its humanistic approach, and its overall elegance and power in dealing with a large array of issues.

Key Concepts In The Acceptance And Commitment Therapy Model

Here's a brief look at some of the key concepts of ACT – In no particular order, as each of these concepts and practical models used within the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy approach pretty much stand alone, and don't necessarily rely on each other or require any kind of build up from one step to the next.

One of the main reasons I like the ACT philosophy is that a lot of the concepts are not only simple, elegant and if practiced, easy to make a part of your life, but they are actually rooted in science and even more importantly, they really do work to make your life easier.

– Psychological Flexibility

This is one of the main “Pillars” of ACT, and one of my favourite concepts of the acceptance and commitment model. Psychological flexibility in one way relates to our ability to be open to, and accepting of our internal states, and with whatever is coming up in our inner world so that its potential negative impact is minimized and we can still focus our energy on what we want and need to do in life.

aikido-like-ACT

Psychological flexibility could be compared to mental aikido 😉 learning to go with the flow of your internal experience

When we have psychological flexibility we have the flexibility, strength and stamina to bend with the inevitable wind storms that will enter our lives at some point or another, without breaking or becoming overly thrown out of balance to the point where we can no longer remain effective and functional.

It also relates to our capacity to “just be” with ourselves, despite the fact that we might feel at times extremely uncomfortable, and feel like using one of the usual conditional responses to dealing with emotional and psychological pain, being; to run away, to fight the way we feel, or to numb ourselves out and escape (although I think we always know deep down that these strategies are not very effective, and actually make things harder to deal with, when we inevitably have to face them again).

So psychological flexibility is obviously an important and life changing trait or set of skills to develop for anyone hoping to get the most out of their life, and succeed despite life's inevitable challenges.

It's also something that helps us in all areas of our lives, and its benefits trickle down in many obvious, and not so obvious ways into our effectiveness in relationships, work, health, and any other area you can think of.

It's something that's worth taking the time to learn about, and more importantly to develop and implement in your life.

Here's a great video of a TED talk by the creator of ACT, Stephen Hayes. He tells an absolutely moving story about his own struggle and the formation of his own personal version of psychological flexibility, which is one of the key concepts in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.

– Acceptance or “Expansion”

I touched on this concept briefly above, in simple terms acceptance or expansion (as it's often referred to in ACT, especially be Russ Harris, and therapists who've been trained by him) relates to our ability to be with our inner experience, in a way that's peaceful, not resistant in nature, and which allows us to get on with our lives and focus our energy on the things that matter.

So it's related closely with the concept of psychological flexibility, but it's a little more specific, as the latter is more like the overall trait of having well developed all the skills that you learn with the acceptance and commitment approach.

– Action Despite Resistance

A big part of the what's taught in ACT, is that experiencing internal resistance and some level of negativity in life and in our thoughts and emotions is absolutely normal (in fact there'd be something strange going on if you weren't experiencing some level of internal suffering – it's just the way humans seem to be wired) and we can't really control that completely, though some control is possible (otherwise we wouldn't be able to make any decisions and do anything we chose to).

Regardless of this unfortunate fact, in nearly every case we have the ability to respond. Some experts (For example Jeffrey Schwartz in his book, You Are Not Your Brain, which is an excellent work) have referred to it as “Free won't power” which I like.

Seeing as we cannot always control our thinking and feeling (that would be perfect free will) we empower ourselves greatly when we learn the ability to take action towards our goals and desires, in spite of the resistant negative thoughts, attitudes, beliefs and feelings that seem to internally want to pull us away from where we'd like to be going.

In fact, I would go as far as to bet that anyone who's greatly successful (of their own right) will probably have to admit if they're honest, that a great deal of hard work (aka going against internal resistance and getting things done anyway) had to be consistently done to get them from where they were, to where they are now.

– It It Useful?

Another fantastic, positive, and productive concept that's a big part of the ACT model is the idea of “is it useful?”. This ties in with the idea that it's unproductive and often makes things a lot worse when we label and put any element of our internal experience in a box that's “bad”. As soon as we start to judge our internal experience, it usually creates a whole bunch more inner turmoil.

In fact, if we could just accept our internal experience all the time, there wouldn't really be a problem. Crap would still happen in life, and it would be difficult (at times extremely so), but it's our resistance to things, including our own internal experiences that makes things just so much worse.

So coming back to this idea of “Is it useful?” – what we're changing is our judgement of whether something (a thought or feeling for example) is GOOD or BAD, and we're simply redirecting ourselves to notice objectively whether or not that's something we want to continue giving our energy, whether or not it's an activity that's going to get us closer to what we want, or push us further away.

In my experience this concept is almost profoundly useful. It really helps me to step outside my own personal drama, and just realize that maybe that line of thinking that I'm following is a little silly, not BAD and something I have to spend more time on with judgments, but just not particularly helpful or moving in the direction of what I want.

This makes it much easier to simply redirect my focus. It's very interesting how powerful this is, for such a simple concept. Again, why i love the ACT approach, it's simple, elegant, but powerful and effective!

A Preoccupation With Control

So far from reading the above, you may be able to begin seeing a larger pattern within the concepts that ACT has combined together to form its framework. A big lie that we are unconsciously force fed from the time we are very little, and which ACT really helps to uncover, is that we should be in control all the time, and given from that, that we should always be happy, or in some other so called positive state.

Even more insidious than this major faulty belief, is that if we're NOT achieving a consistent state of positive feeling in our lives, then there's something inherently wrong with us. We are flawed in some way. In other words, it's wrong and weak to not be feeling great most of the time.

This is obviously a very detrimental belief system to have if you are someone who ever feels any less than wonderful at times (as in, the entire human race 😀

Now, you may think that I'm wrong and deluded, and what I'm alluding to here is complete rubbish, but this belief system like many, is quite subtle within our culture, and in my experience, as I get older, It becomes more and more obvious.

Back to how this ties in with the idea of control.

Because we are supposedly meant to be happy all of the time, and because that's actually impossible, and goes against the cyclical nature of seemingly all systems in the reality that we live in (ups and downs, yin and yang, the sunny weather after the rain storm, etc and on for eternity) then that means of course, that when we are not in control (of our thoughts and feelings), which is most of the time if you're really honest with yourself, then there must be something wrong…

Can you see how messed up this belief system is, and are you starting to see how it relates to your own life and experience and what you've learned ever since you started learning how to talk? As i said, it's rather subtle at first, at least it was in my experience, but as i started to look at this and be more aware of it, it became more and more obvious how predominant this idea is in our culture.

The good news is that as we grow in our awareness of this huge fallacy that's so pervasive, we can start to detach from it, and as we do that, we can be freed from the hold that it has over us (which stated simply, is that when we feel bad, we feel even worse because we're feeling bad, and apparently it's a negative thing to feel bad – wow, what a sentence haha).

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy teaches us the skills to start consciously detaching from these types of absurd ingrained belief systems.

– Identifying And Striving To Live By Core Values

So as we've looked at, a large part of the ACT approach is about seeing your thoughts and feelings for what they are, and not giving them too much power to control your life, and how you respond. This ties in well with the next idea of becoming familiar with, and beginning to align your behavior more closely with your personal value system.

Having a well defined understanding of what's REALLY important to you in your life, the kind of things you want to stand up for, and the kind of person you ultimately want to be, gives you a positive and meaningful focus, which you can use to align yourself with and helps to redirect your attention away from “useless” thoughts and feelings that take you away from your true values.

This is an important piece in the ACT model, and ties in closely with taking action, as we want to be taking action on the things that are aligned with living from our core values.

– Becoming More Present Centered

There is definitely a “mindfulness” or present moment awareness focus in the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy approach, and this is an important part of how we move away from over focusing on the useless and more limiting thoughts and feelings.

Ultimately because nothing in our internal experience is “bad” we are not over identifying with it, but at the same time we want to remember the here and now, because that's where life really is. If we become too caught up in our internal experience, we can feel disconnected from our lives.

This is what happens with excessive worry or obsessive thinking styles for example, it become self perpetuating to the point where we get in the habit of not being present, and losing touch with that basic mindful awareness of what's here and now.

– Fusion And De-Fusion

This is another very important concept from the ACT model, and grasping and remember this concept can be extremely helpful during times when we become overly attached to our mental or emotional drama, and lose perspective.

Fusion basically relates to our level of identification with our thoughts and feelings. So when we have a negative thought for instance, and we take it really seriously, want to push it away, or struggle against it in some way, then you could say that in that moment we are fused with the negative thought.

The goal of ACT and the techniques that you learn within this model, is to learn how to “de-fuse” from unhelpful and often painful inner thoughts and feelings.

Many of the mindfulness type techniques in the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy approach are geared towards helping you de-fuse, so you can decrease needless suffering in your life, and focus on the things that you value and want to create.

Common Questions Related To Learning ACT

– Can I Learn ACT By Myself?

The Acceptance and Commitment Therapy model actually works pretty well as a self help approach in my eyes. I do believe personally however, that depending on how difficult your personal situation, it can be important for some people to get professional help with an ACT therapist.

Think of it like any other set of skills that you want to learn, for example, take learning the guitar – you can easily read books about it, learn to play chords, look up Youtube videos on how to play new covers of songs, or learn new finger picking skills, but you can do all of that WHILE also getting professional guidance, and you're going to be much better off and make progress far more quickly. It's also just about having accountability with someone, which is a very powerful tool for self change.

I think it's also a positive to have outside help in certain cases, even if just for the energetic support of having someone who “gets you” and who you can just vent with – friends can be great for this of course, but sometimes we need someone with a little more understanding and ways to help us bring out and work through what needs to be dealt with.

– Is ACT Just Another Version Of Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a key part of ACT, but certainly not the whole picture

While mindfulness is a key part of ACT, it's certainly not the whole picture.

Not at all. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy incorporates some of the concepts and mental frameworks that you could say relate to the very vague and general idea of “mindfulness”, but there is much more to it than that, and it provides a greater and more diverse framework for practitioners than just mindfulness.

As a good example, ACT incorporates a lot of ideas to do with “self care” and having a more loving mental and emotional attitude towards oneself, which in turn has positive rub off benefits for all the other areas of your life, and makes the other approaches in ACT easier to learn and apply.

Just read up on the rest of this page, and you'll get a good understanding of all the other basic elements that make up the entire ACT methodology.

– What Is The Difference Between ACT and CBT?

Cognitive behavioral therapy is much more related to correcting mental processes, by recognizing thinking errors… Whilst ACT has some elements of this no doubt, similarly to the answer about whether ACT is just another version of mindfulness based therapy, the ACT model stands on its own feet as a sound therapeutic approach to treating many different mental health challenges.

The main difference between the two models is that CBT is a control based theory, whereas ACT (as discussed above more extensively) is all about learning that the whole concept of internal control is largely futile (we only have SOME control, but much less than we're often led to believe), and to work with the mind instead of trying to force it into new behaviors or ways of being.

– Will ACT Help Me With My Anxiety?

ACT can definitely help those of us who suffer from anxiety, no question.

Firstly, I personally believe that in most cases prolonged anxiety is usually the result of either a genetic disorder (like in my case with the blood disorder known as pyroluria which leaves one deficient in key nutrients and minerals unless treated – or the result of over or under methylation) which can often be corrected, a nutritional imbalance, or some other biological cause.

That being said, while one is experiencing anxiety, no matter what the cause is, the skills learned in ACT can make a HUGE difference.

If you're someone who's suffering from anxiety, then I would definitely say that ACT can help, but I would also suggest informally that you seek the help of a good integrative or functional medicine practitioner to look at your biological markers, and find out if there's any underlying imbalances like the one's briefly mentioned above.

The whole psychological profession seems to often be ignorant to the fact that biological processes will always contribute to such states as anxiety and depression which I mention next.

– Will ACT Help Me With Depression?

Similarly for those of us who suffer from depression, ACT can make a huge difference in terms of how we relate to ourselves, our thoughts and our feelings, and this can alleviate a LOT of the mental and emotional anguish that can come from being in a state of depression.

In my opinion, just like in a lot of cases with anxiety, depression is very often found to have its true causes in biochemical imbalances and genetic disorders, and while we may not be able to completely remove these issues by using a cognitive/emotional/spiritual approach such as with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, we can definitely help to alleviate our own resistance to the experience, which can make things a lot easier and more manageable.

Of course it's important to address the biochemical side of things too, and I'm a big believer in using holistic approaches, especially when we're dealing with big life challenges.

– How Long Does ACT Take To Work?

In answering this question, I'm going to have to be a little annoying, sorry… The time that it will take for Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to “work” depends on the time that you put into practicing it, and the quality of your practice.

If you spend 1 hour per month learning just one of the skills in the ACT model, while lying on the couch with the TV on in the background, then obviously your results are going to suck, and ACT will have very little, if ANY benefit for you.

That being said, if you do like Russ Harris suggests in The Happiness Trap, and practice one new skill at a time as you introduce them, and practice it several times a day, or at least as much as you realistically can (smaller goals always work better in my experience) then you'll start to see changes quite quickly.

Again, this is not to be taken as verbatim advice, and if you have any serious mental health issues that are seriously impacting your quality of life, I advise you seek professional help immediately.

Take the information on this website for what it is, information found on the internet. This is all made clear in our legal medical disclaimer.

My Personal Experience Up Until Now With ACT (Updated Periodically)

I've only been studying, and applying the processes that are part of the ACT model for a relatively short amount of time, and already I can see that they are really helpful in calming down the monkey mind, or rather I should say accepting the mind as it does its thing.

I started off by reading this book, and going through the exercises

I started off by reading this book, and going through the exercises. Click the image for my full review of this wonderful book.

In fact, as far as I can see so far, the whole point of ACT is not to try and change any of your internal experience. It's about experientially learning to see the truth, which is that whatever thoughts, feelings and emotions you are experiencing at any moment are simply that, and they do not need to be over identified with, beaten down, run away from, or controlled in any manner, and that trying to do any of that is where one creates suffering for themselves.

(I also like to remember that thoughts and feelings are literally just little chemicals firing on and off around my body and brain – when looked at this way, what on earth is there that's worth all of the energy and stress it takes to beat, run away from or control)

In this way, ACT is very similar to a lot of things that I've resonated with in the past, such as “letting go”, or “releasing” (otherwise known as the Sedona Method – which I still think is really great in its own way), and yet to me it's a more well rounded, somewhat scientific approach, and the fact that it's evolved out of models like CBT (cognitive behavior therapy) and the many different approaches that teach “mindfulness”, though it's quite different from any of these forms in its overall approach.

If you know me or have been following what's written here at healthvibed.com then you will recognize that I love stuff that's rooted in science. Generally I just find scientifically backed models and tools more honest, applicable and I just have more confidence in using them.

For me personally, ACT is exactly what I needed, because internally I'd reached a place in my life where I had built up a great deal of what I would describe as pretty much the opposite of psychological flexibility.

My thinking had become quite rigid, and I was gaining more and more internal resistance to that thinking (I had just found out that I had a lot of physical issues creating some of my off thinking and emotional states, one of them being Pyroluria, which I share my story on here).

Basically it felt like a vicious cycle, and while I knew that I was the creator of this cycle, and that somehow I was the one keeping it locked in place, I didn't really know what to do, or have the tools to get out of it.

ACT has provided the methodology to see my erroneous perceptions, and given me the tools to dig my way out of the mental and emotional holes that I had unwittingly dug for myself over time.

I still have a long road ahead of me, but now I feel much more confident that I can build up to a place where I can begin to more consistently live in a state that's something similar to that described by this wonderful idea of psychological flexibility. I'll be sure to update this page, as I feel I make progress with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in the future to come.

What's Your Experience With ACT?

Have you been using ACT at all in your own life, or do you have any comments about it? What I've written above is just my personal take, so I'd love to hear your stories on how ACT is working out for you, what you find challenging, etc. Please leave your comments below and always feel free to use the contact page for anything else you'd like to know about.

Quick Update – I just chose The Happiness Trap Illustrated version as my first monthly book review for the site, that book review is found here.

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Nick Earl

About The Author - Founder at Healthvibed.com, Nick is passionate about learning and implementing all information related to achieving optimum health.

He's since made it his mission to learn, live and share these principles, many of which you can find on this blog.

Read more of Nick's personal story here, as well as our mission here on this site, here.

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Alex Honeycutt - 10 months ago

I’ve heard of ACT before back when I was going through therapy but never really gave it much thought. I appreciate your detailed article and I feel like you really took to time to understand the it and do the extra research and combine it with your own perspective which overall answered most of my questions for me especially about how it compares to CBT. Please keep your progress updated.
-Alex

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Nick Earl - 9 months ago

Hey Alex, yeah I find it’s a really great combination of many different thought schools. It’s really well rounded and the techniques all combine together to provide a pretty robust psychological frame work to approaching any problems in life.

The thing I really agree with in the ACT model is that pain is accepted as being a given in life. There’s no magical thinking, no “just focus on what you want, and it will magically come into your life” BS that you find in other frameworks and a lot of self help garbage…

No doubt, the mind is powerful – if we focus on what we prefer, we’re MORE LIKELY to bring it into our lives using the power of the subconscious. BUT, and it’s a big but – that doesn’t negate the fact that crap will happen in life that’s totally out of our control.

Going on a bit of a rant there… 🙂 but yeah, it’s a valuable thing to learn, and I highly recommend the illustrated version of the happiness trap, which I will review on this site soon, as it’s a simplistic, humorous and HIGHLY useful overview of the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy concepts and tools.

I will probably also create a “live” journal of my ACT work, and maybe discuss it in a couple of videos.

Would also be great to get Russ Harris on a future Health Vibed podcast! yes, that’s def coming up. Thanks for making me think about this some more 🙂

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