Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is a psychotherapy technique that promotes accepting negative thoughts, feelings, and events. It encourages a person to mindfully participate in activities that uphold their core beliefs and values.

Some ACT supporters believe that working on increasing acceptance can lead to greater psychological flexibility.

Psychological flexibility involves accepting thoughts as they come and acting based on long-term values rather than short-term impulses.

This article discusses ACT, its uses and benefits, and what to expect from an ACT program.

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ACT involves the use of a combination of acceptance and mindfulness strategies:

  • Acceptance: Acceptance strategies intend to help a person have a welcome, open attitude toward their emotions, external events, and thoughts. The goal of acceptance-based strategies is not to change a person’s emotions or attempt to control them but rather to accept them as they come.
  • Mindfulness: Mindfulness involves focusing on the present and observing thoughts and feelings without judgment. The goal of mindfulness is to feel fully present in the moment.

Experts argue that ACT builds on the idea that illness, pain, disappointment, grief, and anxiety inevitably occur as part of human life.

The therapeutic goal is to help a person develop psychological flexibility to address these challenges instead of trying to suppress or eliminate undesirable experiences.

ACT can help a person living with depression, anxiety, or other mental health conditions. It is also a supported treatment for psychosis, chronic pain, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

An ACT practitioner can help a person gain flexible thinking through various exercises. These exercises help people practice the six core skills important in ACT, which include:

  • purposefully living in the present moment by being mindful of thoughts, feelings, sensations, and actions
  • keeping a balanced perspective on thoughts and feelings so that painful or difficult ones do not trigger avoidance behaviors, which are actions a person takes to avoid them
  • defining a person’s essential values and goals
  • committing to doing things in line with those basic values and goals
  • accepting unwanted, unpleasant feelings that often go along with taking difficult actions, especially those actions that are in line with the person’s core values
  • practicing cognitive defusion, which involves stepping back from disruptive thoughts that interfere with a person’s values and learning to see them as simply thoughts instead of absolute truths

“Core” or “essential” values refer to a person’s highest priorities in life, such as honesty, loyalty, and compassion. These vary from individual to individual, depending on what matters to them.

The process of ACT may be shorter than other forms of therapy. Evidence suggests that doing brief ACT interventions in afternoon workshops, as a part of a primary care visit, or even online or via smartphones can have desirable results.

During an ACT session, a therapist may start by working with a person to establish their core values and beliefs. They may do this by asking them questions about what they value most in life and their goals.

A therapist may then discuss how a person can adhere to their core values. They may ask about moments in a person’s past when their actions have not fit their core values and discuss how they could have acted differently.

ACT sessions may also include mindfulness exercises designed to create an awareness of a person’s thoughts and feelings. A therapist may help a person realize that their thoughts do not define them.

Sometimes, a therapist may give a person assignments to complete between sessions to practice learning acceptance and mindfulness skills.

They may teach a person about practicing cognitive defusion and acceptance or how to develop a sense of self that is distinct from their thoughts and feelings.

ACT has many different uses. According to a 2017 article, practitioners have used ACT with some success to help people cope with:

ACT may also help people modify their thoughts and actions to help with illnesses such as diabetes and vascular conditions.

Additionally, the article states that ACT sessions have been successful in promoting healthy behaviors, such as quitting smoking, exercising more, maintaining a moderate weight, and eating healthily.

Preliminary research suggests that ACT is a feasible, effective treatment that healthcare professionals can include in existing medical and mental health care situations. ACT is associated with improved:

  • mental health
  • medical and behavioral outcomes
  • overall functioning
  • quality of life

ACT is very different from another type of therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), CBT is a type of therapy that focuses on changing thoughts rather than accepting them.

CBT practitioners believe that unhelpful ways of thinking and learned patterns of unwanted behaviors can cause psychological problems.

This approach suggests that people with mental health conditions can learn better coping skills and lessen symptoms by actively changing their thoughts.

The APA states that CBT is effective for a range of conditions, including:

Learn more about other types of therapy that may improve mental health.

Many types of mental health professionals may offer ACT.

A person can ask a doctor or healthcare professional to help them find a therapist trained in ACT. They can also search for an experienced ACT practitioner through services like the APA’s Psychologist Locator.

Finding a therapist that fits the person’s needs may include trial and error. A person may want to do a little research before scheduling a therapy appointment with a new provider, considering factors such as:

  • Is the therapist or practice properly licensed?
  • Will the therapist practice evidence-based approaches to address any mental health concerns or conditions a person may have?
  • Does the therapist have experience dealing with the areas of concern?
  • What fees does the therapist or service charge, and do they accept insurance?

A telephone appointment or initial consultation before starting the therapy program may allow a person to discuss these issues with the therapist and see if they would be a good fit for them personally.

ACT stands for acceptance and commitment therapy. It involves teaching a person to accept their emotions and thoughts instead of trying to avoid or control them.

ACT can be a powerful tool for managing unpleasant thoughts. This approach teaches people to be mindful of and accept their thoughts while acting in line with their core values.

It can help with a number of mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, and OCD. Evidence suggests it can also aid in promoting behaviors such as quitting smoking and maintaining a moderate weight.