What Is ACT?
Acceptance and commitment therapy is a mindfulness based behavioral therapy that promotes accepting the things that you cannot change or have no control over and taking value based action for the things you do have control over.
For example (and I’ve used this many times personally!) someone cuts me off while I’m driving. My typical reaction is to get annoyed at the other driver, however their actions are something I have absolutely no control over. What I do have control over are my own actions. One of my values is patience, so instead of getting angry with the other driver, I’m going to take value driven action and exercise patience with them and let all of my negative emotions and feelings pass.
If another value of mine was understanding and empathy, then I could take the view that the other driver may have been distracted because of a negative life event and simply didn’t see me, or they may have a child in the car having an asthma attack and are trying to rush them to the hospital.
The benefit of this is obviously that I remain calm and am far less triggered throughout the day, but I am also taking actions which are in line with my values and are actions I can be proud of.
Identifying Your Values
One of the key components is identifying your own values. What do you value in others? What do you want others to value in you? Why do I like or admire that person? These are all important questions to ask yourself in order to identify your own values.
Values are different to goals, as goals can be ticked off a list and values are for your whole life. Sometimes values are instilled in us by others, such as the way your parents raised you, or you may have been inspired by someone at some point who displayed the values that resonate with you.
The Driver Of Your Own Bus
When I was in hospital and doing a course in ACT, the bus analogy was used often. Think of it like this – imagine you are the driver of a bus. The bus is a metaphor for your life. As you drive the bus you pick up passengers along the way – emotions, memories and thoughts. Some of these are good passengers (ie. Good thoughts, memories and emotions) and some are bad.
Sometimes these bad passengers will sit near the front of the bus near you and they will try to direct you where to drive. You may quieten those passengers by giving in to their demands and directing the bus where they want to take you, but that means your life bus is going in a direction you don’t want it to go. You end up feeling worse because all you are doing is trying to keep those negative passengers satisfied and you lose your way and head in a different direction to where you want to go.
Ideally, those passengers would sit near the back or get off the bus completely, but unfortunately life doesn’t work like that. Part of ACT and mindfulness with ACT is learning how to take all of the passengers with you, without being directed by those negative passengers and steering the bus in a direction you don’t wish to go in.
In other words, it is learning to sit with our negative emotions and feelings (we can’t pretend they’re not there) and taking our life in the direction that our values point us in.
A lot of mindfulness techniques don’t teach us to pretend our negative thoughts and emotions aren’t there, they teach us to let them be there but not get so big that they overwhelm or control us.
The 6 Core Processes Of ACT
The six core processes of ACT
According to Dr. Russ Harris (more about him later in this article – I’m a big fan!) there are six core processes in ACT. They are as follows:
- Being psychologically present – connecting with whatever is happening in the here and now
- Defusion – this is detaching yourself from unhelpful thoughts or feelings. It is not getting rid of them but rather learning how to let them come and go without them overwhelming you or clouding your thinking.
- Acceptance – This is making space for those negative emotions and feelings without fighting against them or struggling with them. The better you become at giving these emotions room to come and go, the better you will be at not being controlled by your own feelings.
- The observing self – this is a big part of mindfulness in ACT. It is being able to observe your own thoughts and feelings almost as a 3rd party.
- Values – I’ve touched on values previously in this article, but they are what you want your life to stand for and mean. What do you want to be known for?
- Committed action – This has also been touched on previously, but this is the same as taking value driven action, regardless of whether it is difficult or uncomfortable to do.
Now stop and consider everything that you’ve just read. Imagine being able to feel negative thoughts and emotions and watch them pass and not let them control you or take over your thoughts. Imagine at every choice point you had in life that you would make the sometimes difficult choice if it meant acting in line with your values and taking committed action that you could be proud of.
This is essentially what ACT is about and it’s why using ACT in your every day life can help you to control the impact of depression and anxiety in your life.
My Experience With ACT
As I mentioned, I took a 12 week course on ACT in hospital. Of all the various strategies that I have researched and tried, ACT is in my top 2, along with CBT. It doesn’t require drugs, it doesn’t require anything really except a willingness to take a different and more productive approach to managing our own thoughts. I have also done courses on CBT, and I found that combining the two of them was incredibly helpful for my depression and anxiety, and also my overall quality of life and contentment.
I’ve read a lot of psychology and self help books in my time. My bookshelf is full of them. What I usually find is the information is so bland, dry and boring that it’s almost impossible to concentrate on the book let alone actually digest and use the information that I’m trying to take in.
One author stands above the rest for that as far as I’m concerned and that is Dr Russ Harris. He is one of the leading experts on ACT, but more importantly, the way he writes everything in his books makes it easy to digest, and easy to utilize in my battle with mental health.
If someone was to ask me what is the one single book you would recommend to someone suffering from mental illness, it would be The Happiness Trap without a doubt. He has also written The Reality Slap and ACT With Love all of which I own and have read multiple times. He also has written other books, so if you click on the links above it will take you to Amazon where you’ll be able to purchase every book he has written.
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