In terms of approaches to dealing with the unbearable suffering of being alive, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy offers a refreshingly pragmatic solution.
As distinct from other forms of therapy that encourage you to question the validity of your negative thoughts, ACT teaches you how to systematically undermine yourself, instead. So it’ll be particularly appealing if you’re a bit of a masochist like me.
And it isn’t just for masochists, or depressed people for that matter. Like happiness, ACT is for everybody. As Dr Russ Harris explains in his splendid book, The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living: A Guide to ACT.
According to Dr Russ, all humans are hardwired to fall into a doom loop of trying to be happy, which in turn makes happiness elusive.ACT teaches you to stop pushing away your demons and embrace them willingly instead Click To Tweet
We subscribe to silly myths which make experiencing lasting happiness impossible. For e.g.: ‘happiness is our natural state’. And ‘if you’re not happy then you must be defective’. Also, ‘we should be able to control our thoughts and feelings’ (that’s a good one), and ‘to create a better life means transcending negative feelings for good’.
Dr Russ says it is a healthy mind that produces psychological suffering. In fact, research shows that around 80% of our thoughts have negative content.
Coupled with negative thoughts, most of us fight to control unpleasant feelings, too. The top 6 most common strategies are:
- Hiding/escaping, distraction and numbing (escaping); and
- Suppression/arguing/taking change (fighting).
Makes us sound like a bunch of crazy people, doesn’t it?
Here are some useful facts about ACT.
1. ACT (pronounced as the word ‘act’) is part of a movement in psychology that regard mindfulness and acceptance as important components of positive change
ACT emerged in the 1980s, due to limitations with earlier therapeutic approaches.
2. ACT is similar and different to Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT)
You’ve probably heard of Cognitive therapy, seeing as it’s the main approach that therapists use to treat anxiety and depression. So what’s the difference between that and ACT?
Both ACT and MBCT use specific mindfulness exercises to help individuals become more aware of automatic reactions. The main difference lies in when and how mindfulness techniques are used.ACT doesn't use meditation exactly, but the processes are similar Click To Tweet
MBCT uses formal meditation practices. ACT focuses on the development of other cognitive skills like diffusion and defining values. So for those that find MBCT challenging, ACT offers many of the same benefits without having to meditate.
Instead of challenging distressing thoughts by looking for evidence and coming up with a more rational response like in CBT, in ACT you accept the thought, and then defuse it like a bomb.
3. The core message of ACT is ‘accept what is out of your personal control – and commit to action that improves and enriches your life’
ACT is all about accepting that negative thoughts and emotions are a part of life, and ending the struggle that things can – or should – be any other way. It is pessimism at its most useful.
4. ACT assumes that the psychological processes of a normal human mind are often destructive and create psychological suffering
You can use a quicksand analogy to make sense of it:
When a person is trying to get out of quicksand, it goes against all their natural instincts to spread-eagle and relax. We reflexively kick and quicken our descent. It is the same with our painful thoughts and emotions. We are better off when we learn to stop struggling.
5. ACT rests on the assumption that human language naturally creates psychological suffering for us all
Interestingly, ACT assumes that suffering is inherent in human language. It is the only Western psychotherapy developed in conjunction with its own basic research program into human language and cognition (called Relational Frame Theory).
6. ACT is based on six core principles that work together to help you to become ‘psychologically flexible’
I bet you’re dying to know what they are.
Cognitive diffusion: This involves learning methods to reduce the tendency to rectify thoughts, images, emotions, and memories. We learn to separate ourselves from our thoughts. Instead, we just see them as – well – thoughts; just words or pictures.
Acceptance: Allowing thoughts to come and go without struggling with them. From The Happiness Trap:
‘acceptance doesn’t mean you have to like your uncomfortable thoughts and feelings; it just means you stop struggling with them…wanting to get rid of something is quite different from actively struggling with it.’
In his book, Dr Russ discusses the process of expansion (to make room for feelings).
Contact with the present moment: Awareness of the here and now, experienced with openness, interest, and receptiveness. Breathing techniques are useful here and the book suggests several.
Observing the self: One of the key distinctions that ACT offers is the separation of the Thinking self and Observing self.
The Thinking self is the part we most commonly associate with. This part comes up with thoughts, beliefs, memories, and so on. The Observing self is the part of our mind that is able to step back and simply observe the thinking self. It is the part of us that is always us (whereas the thinking self adapts).ACT makes a useful distinction between the Thinking self and the Observing self Click To Tweet
Values: This is discovering what is most important. The process encourages us to identify what we want to stand for, what truly matters to us. Identifying your own values can help you to make decisions in regards to taking action about behavior change.
Committed action: Setting goals according to values and carrying them out responsibly. This process is about taking values-congruent action.
As you can see it’s all very practical. ACT’s very USP is its so called workability.
7. ACT isn’t interested in whether a thought is true or false, but whether it is helpful
The relevant question is: if you pay attention to the thought, does it help to create the life we want?
8. A review has found that ACT was better than placebo and typical treatment for anxiety disorders, depression, and addiction
9. ACT is used for chronic pain
ACT points out that nothing in life is permanent therefore everything is subject to change. This includes eliminating pain. ACT has been used for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder in Early Psychosis and in chronic disease and long-term conditions.
10. ACT works better if you can figure out what your childhood programming is around your emotions
To do this, ask yourself the questions:
- which emotions were you told were desirable and undesirable?
- what were you told about the best way to handle your emotions?
- which emotions did your family frequently express?
- what emotions did your family repress/frown upon?
- how did the adults of the family handle their own negative emotions?
ACT isn’t about getting rid of bad feelings or getting over old trauma. Instead, it is about creating a rich, full and meaningful life.
Dr Russ says that if he had to summarize ACT on a t-shirt, it would read:
‘Embrace your demons – and follow your heart.’