Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): What to Expect and How It Works
Anyone who has talked to me for more than five minutes about my job as a psychologist knows that I am a huge fan of an approach called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). I’ve been using ACT for 10 years now to help people deal with everything from anxiety, self-criticism, and perfectionism to addiction, eating disorders, and so much more. Today I’m going to dive into what you can expect from ACT and how it can benefit you.
ACT involves six processes that build psychological flexibility, including mindfulness, acceptance, and committed action. You don't have to follow a strict order of these processes, and you can start with whichever area is most relevant to you. If you want a deeper understanding of the six ACT processes and how they work, I have several blog posts and YouTube videos all about this, so be sure to check those out if you’re intrigued!
The idea behind ACT is that pain and discomfort are natural, and we cannot completely get rid of them. By accepting these feelings and learning to tolerate them, we can stop wasting energy fighting them.
Instead, we can identify our core values and commit to behaviors that align with those values. By doing this, we behave in ways that make us proud of ourselves, regardless of how we feel. ACT reminds us that our thoughts and feelings aren’t within our control, but our behaviors are within our control. Instead of trying to change our thoughts and feelings, we learn to accept them and then act the way we want to act regardless of whether our thoughts and feelings cooperate.
How ACT can change your life
The purpose of ACT is to build this magical skill called psychological flexibility. Psychological flexibility is being able to handle all sorts of emotions and situations with self-awareness, emotional regulation, and distress tolerance. Distress tolerance means you can handle tough situations without reacting impulsively. Emotion regulation means you are capable of managing your emotions effectively without just automatically reacting in ways that are inappropriate or harmful to yourself or others.
You can probably imagine why it is so valuable to be able to tolerate stress and cope with your emotions in a mature way, since these are things that affect you every day. ACT can teach you how to build and practice these skills, which is especially helpful if you struggle with uncertainty or feeling like you need to control everything.
I know for myself personally, ACT has helped me with my anxiety and panic in major ways. ACT taught me that I don’t choose the thoughts and worries that pop into my head, so there’s no point blaming myself for them. Even though I don’t choose what thoughts or feelings arise in me, I can choose what I do. I can choose if I let my thoughts and emotions tell me what to do, or if I take a deep breath, take a step back and think about how I wish to behave.
The truth is, I’m still a pretty anxious person. I don’t think I’ll ever be the most chill girl in the room. However, these days I’m much less bothered by my anxiety. When anxiety arises, I am able to make space for it and not let it knock me around as much. Ironically, by making space for my anxiety when it shows up instead of trying to get rid of it or outsmart it, I actually have gotten a little more relaxed, even though that wasn’t the goal. This is something I notice often with ACT– even though the goal is to learn to accept and tolerate unwanted emotions, those emotions become a little less bothersome when you stop trying to fight them.
How to get started with ACT
So now that you know what you can expect to gain from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, maybe you’re thinking you want to try it out for yourself. If you’re interested in this approach, it’s important to seek out a therapist who has training and experience with ACT. There are several ways to find someone ACT-aligned:
First, you can check out the ACBS aka the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science. On their website you’ll find tons of research and resources on ACT, and you’ll also find a directory where you can search for an ACT provider near you.
You can also seek an ACT therapist by searching in a directory like Psychology Today.com where you can narrow down providers based on their approach. If you don’t see anyone in your area who mentions that they practice ACT, you can still reach out to people individually and ask them if they have experience and training with ACT because they may be familiar with it even if it’s not listed on their profile. Additionally, if you already are working with a therapist, you can ask them if they’re familiar with ACT and request that they start incorporating it into your sessions.
If you’re new to the therapy process, I find it useful to think ahead of time about what you want to get from this experience. If you’re not sure what you want the outcome to be, that’s alright too. Your therapist can help you figure it out in the first few sessions. During your first session, your therapist will ask you questions to get a better understanding of what you're dealing with and what your goals might be. This is also a good time to ask them questions too and see if you feel comfortable working with them.
During the ongoing process of therapy, your therapist will likely teach you some information and tools from ACT, and also give you exercises to practice in the session and in your everyday life. If you really like something or don't like something, it's important to let your therapist know so they can adjust the therapy to better suit your needs.
There is SO much value in working one on one with a mental health provider! If you’re curious about ACT therapy, I really encourage you to meet with a professional and make your mental health a priority.
You can always contact us at HumanKind Psych! All of our therapists are trained in ACT and are happy to bring this approach into your work together.
Feel free to check out my YouTube channel for insightful and informative videos on ACT and various topics related to mental health and personal growth, sign up for my newsletter, and follow me on Instagram (@mindfuldrpaula) for even more practical tools and tidbits you can apply to your mental health journey every day.
It takes courage to make the commitment to the therapy process. Not everyone is willing to do the hard parts. However, I know from personal and professional experience just how meaningful this work can be and I believe that everyone deserves a life of mental and physical health and well-being.
Let me know in the comments if you’d like to know more about ACT!