You are working on becoming the best version of yourself you can be. However, the anxiety or depression you are managing is just too much to handle alone. You may already have a mindfulness or meditation practice, or maybe the practice resonates with you. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a type of therapy which uses mindfulness and meditation to help you manage what life throws at you.
If you’ve ever been to counseling before, then you know that it’s common to focus on problems in your life to come up with solutions. You probably apply this same principle to your life already. While this method works well for external problems, it doesn’t work as well for internal problems.
Most popular methods of therapy assume that people are naturally balanced and healthy. While this is an inspiring idea, it tends to lead to the idea that you—yes, You!—could be balanced and healthy too. All you have to do is figure out what to do with all the pesky thoughts and feelings that bother you all the time.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is different—it assumes that people are naturally complex. Complexity brings and beauty and excitement. However, confusion and frustration usually come along for the ride. ACT recognizes that this is neither good nor bad, it just simply is.
ACT sees what we call “positive” and “negative” as parts of reality which rely on each other. You can’t have one without the other, and trying to escape the negative often robs us of the positive.
One of the main problems ACT seeks to address is the problem of experiential avoidance. Experiential avoidance is basically when you do something or use something so you don’t have to feel “negative” feelings.
Experiential Avoidance can look different in everyone, but here are some examples that might sound familiar to you:
As you struggle with social anxiety, you avoid large groups and stressful social events.
Because you fear what you’re like when you’re angry, so you drink or use substances to keep yourself calm and relaxed.
Maybe you have trouble saying no to people, so you simply ignore calls and messages from friends or family.
You wrestle with sexual or uncomfortable thoughts around certain people or situations, so you avoid them at all costs.
As Brené Brown puts it, we can’t selectively numb. The more we try to escape from our unpleasant thoughts and feelings, the more we make things worse for ourselves.
ACT can be broken down into four areas of focus:
Acceptance means recognizing that some things are outside of our control. Therefore, pain and discomfort are part of many situations. For a lot of people, that can sound grim or pessimistic, but stay with me.
You may have already realized that a lot of your stress and pain comes from situations where you don’t have much control. This could be a situation at work, a conflict with a neighbor, or even something happening within your own body, such as chronic pain.
When a situation causes you stress or pain, your first reaction is probably to try to change the situation or to avoid it altogether. This is a pretty logical thing to do, and in fact, we usually do it without thinking.
The problem is that it often doesn’t work. In a situation where we don’t have control, trying to take control is a waste of energy. In the same way, trying to avoid the situation usually just causes more problems. Our attempts to change the unchangeable leave us worse off than if we simply accepted the situation as it was.
Practicing Acceptance means we learn to have less of a reaction when pain and discomfort shows up. We accept that this is often natural and to be expected.
Anxiety about an upcoming job interview, a first date, or an friend or loved one’s illness
Practicing acceptance means understanding that it’s normal to be anxious about important, exciting, or painful circumstances. Applying acceptance means accepting that the situation is challenging and that anxiety is part of it. You can then learn to move through the anxiety rather than avoiding it Then you can engage in these situations as fully and as effectively as you can.
Anger at a feeling hurt or betrayed by a friend, a partner, or an employer
Most people have a difficult relationship with anger. It’s a powerful emotion that can help us protect ourselves. However, it can also be dangerous. There’s a reason we use words related fire as a metaphor for anger (“burning up", “boiling over,” countless others). Practicing acceptance means recognizing that there are situations in which anger is reasonable. When we feel angry our anger is completely valid and understandable. Shaming ourselves for our anger and trying to avoid anger altogether simply make us feel more repressed, frustrated, and on-edge.
Sadness and depression, either situational (feeling crushed over the loss of a job or disillusioned after a breakup), or chronic (a more long-term feeling of dissatisfaction, unhappiness, or hopelessness)
Acceptance here means recognizing that you probably have very good reasons for feeling this way. When big, painful events occur, it hurts and we often need time to recover. When things seem to never get better, we lose hope and we get tired. ACT encourages you to not shame yourself into self-improvement, but to instead explore the source for your feelings. This is often a challenging process, but it can help you heal wounds that need healing (trauma, grief, etc.) as well as adapt better to your life by learning healthier habits and coping skills.
These are just a few examples—I’ve found that the idea of Acceptance can be applied to almost any situation. More often than not, my clients find that they are (often without realizing it) working very hard to avoid things that cannot be avoided or control things over which they have little or no control.
Does this mean that when life is hard you should shrug your shoulders and do nothing? What are you supposed to do? This is where your values come in to play.
These aren’t questions I or anyone else can answer for you. However, in counseling, I’ll teach you to answer these questions yourself by helping you clarify your values. Values is a word you’ve probably seen often and may have a fuzzy meaning.
In ACT, we use it to mean ways of living and acting so you are the person you want to be and have the life you want to have. Recognizing your own values is an incredibly personal experience. No one can do it for you. However, recognizing what is important to you will help inform every choice you make.
Committed Actions are where ACT goes from a theoretical, intellectual exercise to a practical one. Once you have accepted the reality of the situation as best you can you can settle on what values you care most about. Now, it’s time to ACT (ACT books and training make this joke a lot, so I should at least once, right?).
This could mean going after that promotion you’ve wanted but were too afraid to pursue. It could mean ending or changing a relationship that is harming you. Or perhaps it means replacing a habit that slows you down with one that helps your life improve.
By learning acceptance, identifying your values, and committing to meaningful actions, you’ll find that you waste far less time and attention on problems you cannot change. This frees you up to focus on the things that are actually possible in your life.
ACT is more than just theories about feelings, thoughts, and problems. It’s also a practical approach to learning to change the things in your life that are changeable, and adapt to things that aren’t. A major part of this is a practice called mindfulness.
You’ve almost certainly heard this word before—it’s something of a buzzword right now in the self-help and “inspirational” community. Googling “Mindfulness” will bring up thousands of results, some similar, others not so much.
Mindfulness is an important part of Acceptance & Commitment Therapy. In fact, we talk about mindfulness in many different contexts. Some of the ways mindfulness is incorporated into acceptance and commitment therapy sessions include:
Contact with the present moment
Rather than focusing on regrets from the past or anxiety about what the future holds, mindfulness teaches us to keep our focus here and now. This allows us to see details and patterns that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to and respond to things more effectively
Acceptance of the mind
It’s a nice idea to think that our minds are perfect thinking machines, but the truth is a little more complex. Most of us have ways of thinking that don’t really work very well for us. We think that way out of habit or conditioning.
We don’t have perfect memories. Sometimes we trick ourselves into believing things that are illogical, contradictory, or just plain wrong. Sometimes our brain focuses on the wrong thing, and gets us into trouble.
Accepting all these things means learning to offer ourselves love and compassion when our imperfect minds cause us pain or discomfort. It also means not trusting our thoughts and perceptions completely, understanding that just because we think something is true doesn’t always mean it is true.
Put simply Cognitive Defusion seeks to solve the problem of Cognitive Fusion—this is a fancy way to say that we usually treat our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions (lets call them TFPs) as fully accurate and compelling. We allow our TFPs to completely dominate our behavior. We either follow them without question or do whatever we can to control or avoid them.
Cognitive Defusion means we allow distance between our TFPs. We make sure we’re aware that they exist, but understanding that we exist outside of them. If we exist outside of our TFPs, then we can act outside of them as well.
A practical example: My TFPs tell me that going to a concert will cause me tons of anxiety and therefore I should just not go. Cognitive Defusion can help me understand that I can choose to go to the concert if it’s important to me, even if my TFPs are along for the ride.
Mindfulness is a skill that can be honed through a variety of practices. The most common is some form of meditation, which I highly recommend. However, mindfulness can be practiced at any time and any place, including doing exercising, driving to work, or washing the dishes.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is my preferred method of therapy, and it can be applied in a lot of different ways. I’ve used ACT principles to help clients struggling with depression, anxiety, PTSD, relationship problems, and more. Recent research shows that ACT is effective in treating many mental health issues.
You are interested in mindfulness and meditation, but know you need some extra support. Life is difficult right now and your usual practice isn’t enough. To begin ACT with Nathan, follow these three easy steps:
Learn more about counseling at Gray Matters
Begin to learn how to accept what you can’t control and move toward greater freedom
If you are interested in beginning Acceptance and Commitment therapy in my Tulsa, OK counseling office, schedule an appointment with me to get started. I provide counseling for men as well as gender therapy. I also provide counseling for millennials as they navigate the transition to adulthood. Contact me today to begin finding the healing you deserve.