What Is Acceptance And Commitment Therapy And How Can It Help Anxiety?

We’ve all heard of CBT, the therapy that at it’s core encourages you to change and work against your negative emotions. However acceptance and commitment therapy, or ACT for short, does not seem to get as much attention.

I think that is a real shame. If you’ve never heard of acceptance and commitment therapy before, this could be a game changer for you and your anxiety. ACT and the exercises in this type of therapy, or way of thinking, was a game changer for me.

It’s something that I work with everyday, employing its teachings into every situation that might make me begin to feel anxious. I quickly pull the teachings back to the forefront of my mind.

In my Opinion both CBT and ACT are powerful for relieving anxiety, especially anxiety disorders.

ACT on the other hand, I think, is vital. At least it was for me. I won’t say that this will work for everyone, but I think it’s got a good damn chance of working.

This is the type of thinking that really pushed me forward and out of a constant negative pattern.

ACT is different to CBT in that we are taught not to challenge our negative life situations but instead accept that they are part of our life, lean into them, and then we can see them for what they really are.

ACT allows you to think logically, allowing you to be present and so mindfulness is indeed part of it. Mindfulness is powerful, but mindfulness is only one piece of the puzzle to overcoming anxiety.

What Is Acceptance And Commitment?

 

Professor Steven C. Hayes

 

Acceptance and commitment is a concept that was brought forward in 1986 by Steven C. Hayes, a well known psychologist at the university of Nevada.

Hayes did not go along with the typical way of treating anxiety and negative thoughts. He didn’t believe in the idea that we should avoid, go against or try and ‘cure’ our negative thoughts and assumptions as he believed that this type of behaviour would lead to only short term relief.

His acceptance method was then born. Professor Hayes suffered himself with painful emotions which lead him to try and deal with them in a different way. ACT is not reserved for anxiety, but it’s overall purpose is to show you how to use your painful life experiences to guide you to purpose and to understand how your own values can steer you to a way of live that is important to you.

His idea is that if we can nail down what our own individual values are, we can start to see situations differently and react in a rational way based on them.

In a nutshell, acceptance and commitment is the act of allowing negativity to happen and just accepting that it’s a part of life. By doing this, we can understand that good and bad things are happening to us and not that they ‘are us’.

 

The 6 Cores Of Acceptance And Commitment Therapy

 

ACT can be summed up in 6 different areas which are used during this therapy. They consist of;

 

Acceptance:

This is the basic act of accepting that negative thoughts and situations happen. We accept that they are a part of life and that there is no good without bad. This area of ACT is the first step that allows the other 5 areas to be materialised. This is also a key part of mindfulness that many who practise mindfulness will be used to.

Cognitive Defusion:

This is the exercise that intends to change how an individual interacts with negative thoughts or situations rather than the nature of them. For example, a big upcoming exam might make you feel anxious and stressed. Instead of doing everything we can to avoid those emotions, we’re trying to change how we interact with them.

Present Moment:

Another key mindfulness element, being present in the moment is vital to ACT. I used to suffer with crippling negativity about past situations I didn’t like. They would play on my mind constantly. It’s kind of like when you’ve had an argument and you wish you’d said something at the time but only think of it after the argument is over.

Because of situations like this, when we next get in an argument or think we’re about to, those same anxious feelings come racing back again.

The practise of being totally present strips any emotions and feelings from past events or future ones. This is the idea that all we are is now. What happened in the past doesn’t matter, it’s only what you do now that can direct your future.

Self As Context:

It’s so easy to take things out of context, especially when we feel like bad situations are happening to us. The idea of self as context is that we are not what is happening to us, we are the ones who are experiencing what happens to us.

For example you might say – “bad things always happen to me, I’m never lucky”

Whereas when you put yourself in the context of your life, you are not unlucky and you are not the one who experiences bad things, you are the one who is experiencing bad things happening to you – There is a key difference there. 

We are very good as human beings as putting ourselves in boxes. It’s what we naturally do. Everything has to have a label because that’s how we navigate and cope.

Understanding yourself in context allows you to see situations for what they are – just situations that do not follow you around but simply occur to everyone around the planet.

Values:

In the context of acceptance and commitment, values means the qualities that are unique to us that we work towards in any situation. They are what are important to us as an individual. Understanding your own key values allows you to navigate through any negative thoughts or situations.

This does not mean aggressively asserting your values when you don’t like something, instead it means constantly working towards your core values that makes you, you. This reinforces to you who you are, what you stand for and what you want to continue to be in your life.

Acceptance and commitment exercises encourage you to keep working towards your goals as an individual and in your life. this means committing to your core values and keeping them a priority. Essentially this allows you to define your purpose as a human being and in the form of physical goals.

 

Rational Frame Theory’s Role In Acceptance And Commitment (and anxiety)

 

Relational Frame Theory is a widely accepted theory that a human’s ability to relate things is the foundation of language and cognition. A humans we ‘stack’ our knowledge of the world and understand it by relating things to what we know so we can work out what new things are and label different objects and situations.

Us humans have the ability to relate similar situations and this can be a huge help in our process of learning, but it can also be a hindrance.

If we use an example that relates to anxious behaviour;

You were very anxious when you went to the music concert last month.

You’ve been invited to a wedding and you’re starting to think that you’ll be very anxious there too.

The reason for this is because there were a lot of people at the concert (which made you anxious) and so you know that the wedding will bring these feelings back because there will be a lot of people there too.

Essentially, It is very easy for us to relate things we know to other things before we truly know what the outcome may really be.

The truth is, the wedding might not have as many people, you might know more of these people, there could be a different vibe and you might end up having the best day out you’ve needed in a long time.

For many who suffer with anxiety disorders we can easily relate “I’m not good enough” to ourselves. This goes back again to our need to label ourselves or relate ourselves to a feeling or emotion that makes sense to us.

We relate ourselves to “not being good enough” because that’s how we feel, instead of understanding that this feeling of self worth is just an emotion that is happening to us.

How can acceptance and commitment help us with anxiety disorders? Obviously, this is a way of rethinking that leads to a more mindful way of life.

 

what is acceptance and commitment therapy

How Can Acceptance And Commitment Help Anxiety?

 

The key for me here is self as context.

It’s so easy for us to go day to day thinking that we’re the only ones suffering with anxiety and worry. We take things out of content and we label ourselves as ‘that sort of person‘.

Where it’s true that some people have anxiety disorders and some don’t, those who don’t, still get anxiety on some level and are still as exposed to developing an anxiety disorder at some point in their life. We are the ones experiencing what’s happening to us, instead of what’s happening to us being a defining factor of who we are.

Here’s the thing, the person who has never experienced much anxiety might develop an anxiety disorder for whatever reason. This person might tell others;

“I don’t know why I’ve been so anxious lately, I’m not that sort of person.”

Both the anxiety sufferer and the ‘person who never really feels anxious’ are both experiencing the effects of anxiety.

One or the other person is not ‘that sort of person’, the experience of anxiety is happening to them. Both are equal and separate from this emotion instead of the emotion being part of them.

The person who has always felt anxious for as far back as they can remember is still just experiencing that emotion happening to them no matter if they can’t remember a time when they didn’t feel anxious.

Simply being aware of this can allow you to understand that change from an anxious life is possible.

The same goes for any other humanly emotion.

For example – Anger

We often say;

They are such an angry person” – about someone who seems to always be pent up.

By saying this, we’re trying to define this person by the emotion they show the majority of the time. The truth of the matter is, this person is ‘not an angry person’. They are the person who is experiencing this emotion often, for whatever reason.

How To Commit To Change

 

By ‘acceptance’ we are not accepting that we are anxious an person. As much as I believe in accepting that negatives are part of life, as there is no good without bad, this does not mean accepting everything in your life of course. For example, you’re trying to find out how to ease your anxiety and so you’re doing something about it by reading this article.

What we mean by acceptance is essentially what I said above. We accept that from time to time (or if you have an anxiety disorder – most of the time) we feel anxiety. However, we’re accepting that it’s happening to us, not that we are it.

To move forward, and once we’ve accepted that both good and bad emotions will occur in our lives, we can start to commit using our values that are personal to us.

When a negative situation or emotion happens, we do not try and move around it, we do not try and challenge it in a forceful way, but we do interact with it using our personal values.

For example;

You get shouted at on the road by a driver.

Generally, this brings up anxious or even angry emotions. When we’ve defined who we are in our lives and how we want to react with everyday situations, we can respond in a way that is respectful to ourselves.

Let’s say that one of our core values is to not start drama in our lives and be respectful to others.

Instead of shouting back in this example, we would politely respond and say something constructive to our angry driver.

This of course all depends on what your personal values are.

 

Using Your Values As A Life Compass

 

Your values are how you interact with the world around you, but more importantly they are what gives your life purpose. Instead of goals which usually come to an end once achieved, values are life long ideas that you live everyday of your life.

You can use your values to narrow down your life purpose in an easy way. Your values can help you shape how you live your life but also what you do with it.

For example;

  • You are caring for others -> could be a nurse, teacher or carer
  • You like to entertain others -> could be a musician or actor
  • You like to be creative -> could be an artist or crafter

In terms of overcoming our anxiety, our values define how we react to stressful or anxious thoughts.

For example, I suffered with GAD for nearly 20 years. I found that using all the teachings in ACT helped me to overcome my way of thinking. Defining my values, and what I believe in, and how I wanted to behave in my life really helped me to understand myself in a mindful way.

I learnt something about myself I never knew – I wanted to help others.

For years I was so wrapped up in my own head with anxiety and stress that I couldn’t see myself in the context of my life.

I’m a creative person but I also don’t like to see others struggling especially when I know what they’re going through. I defined my values, and now helping others to put themselves in context is what I like doing. I like helping others overcome their anxiety and at the very least, seeing it differently.

Acceptance and commitment is powerful stuff. I hope this widened your mind to what can be possible and what actions you can take today using ACT to start understanding not only your anxiety feelings, but yourself.

I’d love to hear if you’ve had experience with ACT in the comments and if it’s helped you too.

Here’s to your success – Sean

  1. Anne Storm

    December 24, 2017 at 7:16 pm

    I have been exploring just “being” with negative emotions. Having had GAD from early childhood, fantasy and distraction helped then, and since, I have become an amazing actor playing the role of “oh, it’s OK! I’m fine. What about you??” I repressed negative emotions to the extent that I became mal-adapted to meds to take the panic away. I didn’t know how to exist with painful feelings. Lots of trauma later, I am slowly slowly trying to just be OK with painful thoughts. My fam has been both supportive and judgemental regarding my drinking. I am only just learning what I have been repressing, and not over react when things get uncomfortable.
    ACT has been wonderful for me thus far, early days and lots of healing to do.

    1. seanclarke

      December 26, 2017 at 10:04 am

      Hi Anna, that’s great to hear that you’re doing better. Yes, simply ‘being OK’ with negative thoughts is easy to say but in reality can be a very hard thing to do. That’s why I believe in practising mindfulness on a regular basis, if only to bring about a higher sense of awareness to the anxiety balance in our lives. You can combine the teachings of CBT and ACT don’t forget too. I still believe there are times when we need to challenge our thoughts and feelings.

      Basically – understanding that anxiety and stress are only two emotions in a vast array of human emotions and we don’t need to give them the air time they ask.
      People will be judgmental. That’s just a part of life. The important thing is that YOU know what you need to be doing to heal. At the end of the day, other people’s opinions mean very little even if they’re good or bad.

      Just as an example – The goal for me was to live my day to day just more peaceful and generally content. I had extreme GAD too which meant everyday was very uncomfortable. I didn’t heal overnight, and I think it’s important for all of us to remember that healing comes in the form of little ‘wins’ here and there that eventually build up until we feel like we have healed.

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