Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
I’m an avid reader and often find that, when I read a ‘work-related book’, clients will come to mind and I’ll begin to see how the principles can expand our therapy. I have been reading more lately about a therapeutic approach called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (“Act” for short, and for the cue to Action, not the reference to the standardized exam for college applications). ACT is something I’ve been incorporating in therapy sessions, when applicable. ACT supposes that the ‘problems’ in life are really more of our thoughts and evaluations of situations, which then take us away from what’s actually happening in the present moment.
Are you pretty much living the life you want to live right now? Is your life focused on the things that are most meaningful to you? Live is not, and does not have to be, problem-free – suffering is part of life – what’s important is how caught up we get in the stories we tell ourselves that free us or burden us.
Our brain produces thoughts by function of what a brain is meant to do. Just as our stomach processes food, more or less, our brain creates thoughts and narratives. Since this is the brain’s job, the only option then is to be able to at least occasionally ‘tune out’ your thoughts/ your mind.
Thoughts create feelings. Feelings are really informed by thoughts. If you’d like to test this out…
Take twenty seconds now to try to feel happy….
Happy, happy, happy…. (20 seconds)….
Did you do it?
If you were able to make yourself feel happy feelings, I imagine that you thought of things and people and places that make you happy, and/or you thought up a memory of a happy time for you.
We often instinctively listen to and entertain our thoughts and narratives, especially when that ‘mind chatter’ is painful or upsetting (like “yipes, why would I be thinking that??”). Sometimes we think that if we can just, “worry it out”, we’ll figure out a solution or feel better, etc…. but what really tends to happen is that things snowball and, as predicted, we have tuned out the present moment experience in favor of our narrative about it. And, just as we did with the happy feelings experiment above, our thoughts feed our feelings and then amplify them.
So, then, what are we to do?
Well, the first step in ACT (and exercises that correspond with ACT principles) is Acceptance, also called willingness. Acceptance does not mean we have to like how we’re feeling or what’s going on or our ‘monkey mind’ evaluations, but rather let’s accept because living in the present moment (mindfulness) has the potential to be more rewarding than living in your head/ your thoughts. Willingness to feel a feeling, rather than resist it, may allow for either you to build up distress tolerance to those feelings and/or for those feelings to be less distressing. We don’t have to fully identify with our thoughts, with our suffering. We are separate from our thoughts.
The idea in the Commitment part of ACT is to be committed to moving forward toward your values, in little steps. Sometimes we put movement towards our values off ‘until xyz happens’ – fill in the blank on whatever ‘xyz’ is for you as to how thoughts and feelings hold us back from what we value: “I’ll do _____________ when I’m not depressed anymore”, “I’ll do ______________________ once I lose this weight”, Once I don’t have anxiety I’ll __________________”, “I’ll take that risk at work once _________________”.
How would you fill in these blanks? We all have had thoughts like these.
The problem is not that we have problems, but rather it’s the putting everything else on hold in life until the ‘xyz’ happens. Commitment is that, coupled with acceptance for feelings and problems and [alas] suffering, we can move in the direction of our values and live a life that’s personally valued and meaningful. When we can get out of the mind/ out of the thinking and perseverance, we get in to life.
What steps will you take today?