Acceptance and commitment therapy is a therapeutic approach utilized to help individuals with any range of mental health concerns, especially anxiety and depression. In various studies, ACT has been useful for a spectrum of issues, from mental health concerns like depression, all the way to complaints about burn-out and work productivity. Acceptance and commitment therapy can be a useful skill for everyone.
Acceptance and commitment therapy works to help you to stay in contact with the present moment regardless of painful thoughts, feelings, memories, or bodily sensations that may arise. You learn that difficult feelings and experiences are normal and do not have to dictate your decisions. For example, you may highly value asserting your needs, and also feel afraid to state those needs to others.
ACT will teach you how to accept the painful feelings of fear, and to state your needs while also feeling afraid. Turning away from difficult feelings is oftentimesdetrimental to overall well-being. Feelings need to be felt in order to move through you and away. Painful feelings come and go every day, which is normal. ACT can help you to open yourself up to unpleasant thoughts and feelings, to understand them better, while simultaneously learning to not overreact to them. This is called psychological flexibility, the main marker of success in acceptance and commitment therapy.
Psychological flexibility is a skill you build that puts you back into the driver’s seat of your life. It is all about choosing your behaviors based on personal values and goals, rather than actingfrom a place of fear or upset. You can gain control over yourself through awareness, acceptance, and decision-making. For example, if your goal is to create close, healthy relationships, but you are struggling with social anxiety or a fear of intimacy, you simultaneously crave closeness and avoid it. This is painful. An ACT therapist will help you to move out of that emotional trap, and toward building close relationships, even when you feel scared.
In ACT, you will learn to be aware and open to your experiences, whether they are good or bad (acceptance), and you will actively choose what to do next (commitment) based on your values and goals. Acceptance and commitment therapy provides you with tools to empower your life.
A helpful diagram used in ACT is referred to as the ACT matrix.This is a way to map out your own concerns within the ACT framework. It looks like this:
ß Escape----------------------Chase à
You can practice at home or with your therapist. Start by drawing a horizontal line with an arrow on either end. One side reads, “escape”, and the other says, “chase”. Under the word “escape”, you will list out difficult things that show up inside of you, or the things you want to get away from (e.g. chronic negative thinking, painful bodily sensations, ruminations of experiences in the past). These are the habits and experiences that get in the way of what you want in life. This is your pain monster! Above the word “escape”, list out the behaviors you engage in (e.g. numb out with TV/games, isolate, use drugs/alcohol, self-harm, over/under eating) to get away from your pain monster.
Truthfully, escape is not always bad. If a building is about to collapse on you, get out of there! Sometimes escape is essential. It is evolutionary. This model simply asks you to pay attention to what and how you escape, so that you can decide if those are behaviors that you want to continue. Ask yourself, “How is this working out for me?”
On the right side of the diagram, under “chase”, list out who and what matters most to you. These are essentially your valued goals (e.g. time with family, maintaining close friends, connection with my partner, success at work, positive thinking).
Above the word “chase”, list out the behaviors (e.g. choosing to speak up at work, asking my partner questions, practicing patience, meditation, yoga, working out) that help you to go after your valued goals. This is what helps you to engage with a life that feels good to you.
In the middle of your diagram, you can write, “I am here”. This signifies that you are present with what is true for you. From this place of awareness about what your life is looking like, you can choose to behave in ways that help move you toward your goals.