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What Is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy? ACT Defined

Acceptance and commitment therapy can be helpful for a number of mental health conditions, but what exactly is it? Here is ACT defined.

Acceptance and commitment therapy is a form of behavioral training that combines mindfulness practice with self-acceptance. It was developed by psychology professor Steven C. Hayes at the University of Nevada in the 1980s and is famed for its deviation from traditional Western psychology.

So what exactly is ACT, and does it work? Acceptance and commitment therapy is about embracing your thoughts and feelings without guilt. The aim of ACT is for patients to achieve psychological flexibility, which is thought to be the measure of good mental health. Those with mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety disorders, OCD and substance abuse disorder can all benefit from this type of therapy.

What Is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy?

Acceptance and commitment therapy is a form of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) that encourages people to unhook from difficult and painful thoughts by learning to accept and be in contact with them. It is based around the concept that committing to and facing problems head-on allows us to embrace the present moment and meet the challenges life brings.  

According to the American Psychological Association, the goal of acceptance and commitment therapy is “to increase psychological flexibility, or the ability to enter the present moment more fully and either change or persist in behavior when doing so serves valued ends.”

The practice teaches people to accept their emotions, to mindfully observe their thoughts and to recognize that actions can be determined by personal values rather than by guilt.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): How Does It Work?

In acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), therapists work to establish psychological flexibility with their patients using six core techniques:

  • Learning acceptance and unlearning avoidance
  • Cognitive diffusion, in which negative thoughts are observed rather than hidden or reasoned away
  • Being present
  • Self as context, the idea that we are not our thoughts, feelings or experienced sensations.
  • Chosen values
  • Committed action

In the case of anxiety or trauma, for example, acceptance and commitment therapy could mean letting painful or intrusive thoughts stay while being sensitive to what shows up, rather than fighting how you feel.

Embracing acceptance and commitment therapy doesn't mean you have to practice acceptance in everything you do. If someone is rude to you at work, for instance, you may decide to stand up for yourself or report the incident. This is the very essence of what psychological flexibility means; it is “contacting the present moment fully as a conscious human being, and based on what the situation affords, changing or persisting in behavior in the service of chosen values."

The commitment part is also flexible, and it will mean different things to different people. In essence, the “commitment" is to whatever or whoever makes your life meaningful and worthwhile. It is about committing to life rather than being entirely at the mercy of your mind.

How Is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Used?

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is effective at treating a number of psychological disorders, such as:

  • Trauma
  • Depression
  • Stress/burnout
  • Low self-esteem
  • Situational anxiety (such as test anxiety)
  • Family or relationship conflict

Acceptance and commitment therapy teaches you to accept the thought or feeling, get in touch with the present moment and commit to living your life. It means being open to what hurts, aware of how it affects you and engaged in actively choosing how you respond to life, so your experience doesn't rule or define you.

article references

APA Reference
Smith, E. (2019, August 18). What Is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy? ACT Defined, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, August 5 from https://www.healthyplace.com/other-info/mental-illness-overview/what-is-acceptance-and-commitment-therapy-act-defined

Last Updated: October 15, 2019
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Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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