What is ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy)?
Originally created by Steven Hayes, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is a form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. ACT, pronounced as a full word not an acronym, expands on traditional CBT. The aim of an ACT therapist is not to alter or "fix" thought patterns, but to change our relationship to our thoughts, or cognitions.
What Does That Mean?
For example, a CBT therapist might encourage a client to identify a negative thought and work to replace that thought with something more positive. The theory being if you change the thought, you change the way you feel. An ACT therapist, on the other hand, would support you in noticing the thought and allowing it to exist without getting "hooked" by any particular thought. The theory supporting this approach is that we can't control our thoughts. Our brains develop thoughts and judgements constantly. However, we can determine which thoughts are helpful and which are not. When we notice that we are having a thought and label it as a "thought", we create separation between our selves (the one noticing the thought) and the content of the thought. Basically, the thought is not us and not all thoughts are helpful or even true.
How Is This Helpful?
When we can recognize a thought, or a feeling, as separate from ourselves, we allow for flexibility in how we want to respond to the thought or feeling. When we are "hooked" by or fused with a thought or feeling, that thought or feeling is driving our behavior. If we can create distance, or "unhook", from a thought or feeling by simply noticing that we are having a thought or feeling without immediately reacting, we are provided options as to how to respond, or whether we need to respond at all.
So How Do I Do This?
The short answer is mindfulness. Before I lose you, mindfulness does not necessarily mean meditation. Meditation is simply one form of mindfulness. When I say mindfulness, I mean paying attention, without judgement, to your present experience, on purpose or with intention. Basically, being able to identify what you are thinking and feeling right now and not judging those thoughts and feelings as either "good", or "bad". Sounds simple, but it takes some practice. Mindfulness is important to ACT because we often become "hooked" without realizing that we are "hooked". Once we recognize being hooked by thoughts or feelings, we can step back from them and make a decision about how we want to proceed rather than reacting immediately.
How Do I Decide if I Want to Respond?
Values are an important part of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Values are our guides so to speak. When I talk about values, I am speaking of what comes to mind when you think about the kind of person you want to be. When we are clear about our values, they can help us decide how to respond, or whether to respond, to thoughts and feelings. Being clear about your values allows you to ask yourself, "What kind of person do I want to be in this situation?" The answer to that
question can guide your decision about whether, when, and how to respond to thoughts and feelings.