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What is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)?
As one of the third wave of behavioural therapies, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) challenges the basic principles of conventional Western psychotherapy. Third wave of behavioural psychotherapies is based on the principles of presence, mindfulness and acceptance. They synthesise Eastern philosophies with traditional western psychotherapy. Besides involving a variety of value-guided behavioural interventions and experiential exercises, ACT uses a combination of paradox, metaphor, and mindfulness practices.
Like original ACT, ACT Coaching focuses on helping people realise their current life situation and make necessary changes, through the following steps:
Accept the situation
Choose the right direction
“The more we try to avoid the basic reality that all human life involves pain, the more we are likely to struggle with that pain when it arises, thereby creating even more suffering.”
When the hard times hit us, we tend to deny, avoid, or struggle with our inner emotions. The action-oriented approach of ACT helps to stop denying and running away from problems and, instead, accept the deepest and most negative feelings and take appropriate actions to move forward in life.
After all, running away from problems doesn’t solve them. It is precisely our need to reject parts of our own psyche that keeps us locked in cycles of neuroses.
ACT and ACT Coaching involves 6 core principles:
Acceptance of reality;
Cognitive defusion of psychologically heightened experiences;
Observing the present moment;
Accessing a transcendent sense of self;
Creating committed actions.
Recent research has found Acceptance and Commitment Therapy-Based Coaching, ACT Coaching, to be effective. It is considered a ‘holistic and multi-component’ coaching version of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).
ACT Coaching is particularly good at helping people align with their core values, so they can lead a value-driven life.
We cannot change anything until we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses.
— Carl Jung
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and ACT Coaching helps us to accept reality as it is, whilst taking productive actions. It teaches us how to manage our reactions, thoughts, and feelings without running away from them.
The idea of non-avoidance may be the most challenging aspect of ACT and ACT Coaching. The idea that we ought to accept situations as they are, including our anxiety, can seem daunting or unachievable at first. But we must be clear when understanding that acceptance is not accepting defeat or passivity. In fact, we all have an intuitive understanding that avoidance does not work and often makes matters worse. All we are asked to do in ACT is not to plunge into the deep end in one go, but to take small steps while letting go of avoidance. Instead of being a frightening process, it can be exhilarating and liberating.
ACT helps us to widen our sense of self and to adopt a wider perspective. Through exercises and practices, we remember that our feelings and worries are not the essence of who we are. We are more than them. The principle of accessing a transcendent sense of self helps to achieve this skill.
ACT also helps us to define our values, find the right direction in life and take action accordingly.
“Commitment isn’t about being perfect, always following through, or never going astray. Commitment means that when you (inevitably) stumble or get off track, you pick yourself up, find your bearings, and carry on in the direction you want to go.”
Efficacy of ACT
Multiple studies have been conducted to prove that ACT works. One Iranian study revealed that ACT helps to relieve the symptoms of depression and anxiety. The study involved thirty participants who were divided into two groups. One group underwent ACT, while the other received no therapy. The statistical analysis stated that those participants who received ACT showed fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression when compared to the participants who didn’t take part in the ACT.
There’s at least one systematic review that reports the clinical effectiveness and efficacy of ACT when it comes to treating chronic pain. Our thoughts and feelings can either positively or negatively affect our physical and mental health.
Another scientific review concluded that ACT was a more effective treatment for addiction, and mental disorders like anxiety or depression, than regular treatments used to ease the symptoms of those conditions.
In a way, ACT and Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) are very similar, but they’re not identical. Both therapies involve emphasising mindfulness and acceptance, and the importance of taking action. DBT is a specialised therapy whilst the ACT is a form of clinical behaviour analysis and has a wider application.
Although DBT is usually applied to treat BPD, ACT has also been used often as it has shown successful results when treating BPD. ACT helps people with BPD to concentrate on their core thoughts, sensations, values, and actions. It encourages them to take necessary action to handle their condition and have more stable beliefs about themselves.
What Happens in ACT
The goal of ACT is to help develop what is known as ‘psychological flexibility’.
Your therapist or coach may help you gain perspective in your thinking. For instance, when you say, “I’m afraid,” or “My life is becoming more and more miserable,” you may be reminded of the fact that you are more than your fears, and that your life is not just your thought.
You may be asked to bring your worries, thoughts, or problems to mind by closing your eyes, imagining that worry or thought in front of you, and describing the feelings or sensations. It’s not enough to just say, “I’m unhappy.” The aim of this technique is to see a problem or a thought for what it is in detail.
You may be guided to practice staying in the present moment, no matter what thoughts come to mind. We learn how to stay in the present moment without forcing ourselves to banish any thoughts or feelings within. We can allow thoughts and feelings to come and go while keeping our attention on the actions we have committed to.
ACT and ACT Coaching has the potential to be a potent tool for spiritual development. In ACT, observing self-technique helps you to realise that we are not our feelings, thoughts, sensations, memories, images, or physical body. By accessing our transcendent self, we can, in an embodied way, penetrate the wisdom of impermanence: that all phenomena just come and go, and not be overly identified with any of these phenomena.
ACT Works When Everything Else Fails
Many people find that ACT works when everything else has failed. It helps to find the root cause of the problem that is hidden deep in the mind and start to solve it in a step-by-step manner.
Traditionally, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) teaches people how to control their sensations, feelings, emotions, thoughts, etc. The basic concept behind this therapy is that feelings and thoughts play a major role in people’s behaviour. But often, fighting feelings and thoughts only make things worse. CBT has in it the risk of sending someone into a spiral of further judging, criticizing and fighting their thinking. For people for whom CBT does not work, ACT is a revelation. They realise they don’t need to fight each and every thought or engage in harsh scrutiny of themselves. They just need to take the next small step and sail through life accordingly. In other words, ACT helps us to live with ourselves and the world in harmony, rather than being in battle with things all the time.
When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change. — Wayne Dyer
Imi Lo is a consultant and published author with extensive and international experience in mental health and psychotherapy. Her books Emotional Sensitivity and Intensity and The Gift of Intensity are available worldwide and in multiple languages. Imi has two Master’s degrees; one in Mental Health and one in Buddhist Studies. She works holistically, combining psychological insights with Eastern and Western philosophies such as Buddhism and Stoicism.