Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is a form of behavioural therapy, developed in the late 1980’s, that combines the practice of acceptance with mindfulness strategies. It assumes that by acknowledging and accepting negative thoughts and feelings, we can learn to observe them passively and develop new ways to relate to them. ACT also helps individuals to become more flexible psychologically, gain a better understanding of their personal values and become more connected in the present moment.
Negative thought patterns impact many aspects of daily life, including relationships and careers. ACT uses a range of techniques to reduce the power of these thoughts and feelings, without denying their existence.
ACT involves the use of 6 core skills or thought processes that allow participants to develop greater psychological flexibility. These are not taught in any specific order. They are:
Acceptance – Acknowledging and embracing painful or negative thoughts without trying to change them is an essential skill to master in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
Cognitive diffusion – This means changing the way in which negative thoughts and feelings function as well as changing how we relate to them. For example, seeing the troublesome issue as a particular shape or colour can help to reduce its significance or perceived value.
Contacting the present moment – Being more more aware of the immediate environment and focusing on what is happening right now helps to ensure that our current actions align with our personal values.
The observing self – In ACT therapy, the mind is seen to have two parts or functions. The ‘thinking self’ deals with thoughts, feelings, goals, beliefs and so on. The ‘observing self’ deals with awareness and attention. Actively developing these mindfulness skills can lead to greater levels of acceptance and cognitive diffusion.
Values – Defining the qualities and principals we chose to live by is also a key component of ACT. Understanding our personal values allows us to better understand our current actions, thoughts and feelings.
Committed action – Once we understand our values, we can use them to help shape our goals. In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, individuals are asked to actively select these goals and commit to specific actions that will lead to achieving them. This helps to generate a greater sense of confidence and control over current circumstances.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy are both popular approaches used by a variety of mental health professionals to help individuals become more aware of their current circumstances and also how they react to these circumstances.
CBT is based on the concept that the way we think affects the way we behave. It allows participants to analyse and reflect on their underlying beliefs and thought patterns (often developed during childhood) and then see how these may have influenced current behaviours.
Mindfulness is a technique used by many ancient cultures that teaches people to calmly observe themselves and their surroundings in the present moment and to use this impartial information to develop a greater sense of self-awareness and understanding. Observations include noticing negative reactions to everyday situations, particularly stressful ones, with the aim of reducing or stopping those reactions over time.
During the 1970’s, mindfulness was used by psychologists as a tool to help manage stress, anxiety and chronic pain. It was later also used to help manage depression and other mental health issues. For nearly 50 years it has been intensely researched and its effectiveness has been acknowledged by leading institutions and specialists.
The technique is practiced in a number of ways (including meditation and physical activities like Tai Chi and Yoga) and helps to increase physical awareness and calm the mind. Mindfulness meditation comes easier to some people than others but, as with many things in life, it simply takes regular practice and a willingness to learn.
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy uses the best aspects of both these therapies. Also, like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, it takes the view that the mind has 2 functional modes, the ‘doing’ mode and the ‘being’ mode. In the ‘doing’ mode, the mind focuses on goals – seeing the difference between how things are now and how it would like them to be in the future. On the other hand, the ‘being’ mode simply accepts things as they are. So, unlike CBT, MBCT looks at both cognitive modes and how they combine to influence behaviour.
Both ACT and MBCT use specific mindfulness exercises to help individuals become more aware of their situation and automatic reactions. Both also encourage acceptance of things as they are, including negative experiences – seeing thoughts as merely verbal events and not actual events. The main difference lies in when and how mindfulness techniques are used.
In MBCT, formal meditation practices are a major focus and are linked to everyday activities. ACT, however, also focuses on the development of other cognitive skills like diffusion and defining values. For those that find MBCT challenging, ACT offers many of the same benefits without having to meditate.
If you are unsure of which approach is best for you, find a therapist that practices both and allow them to let you try both methods. You may even decide to do a combination of both. In the end it is purely a personal choice.