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What is ACT?

ACT (one of therapy's many 3-letter acronyms) refers to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Originally developed by Steven Hayes in 1982, ACT is part of the “third wave” of behavioural therapy that integrates aspects of mindfulness. The first two waves were pure behaviouralism (using conditioning and reinforcement techniques, like Pavlov's bell), and cognitive behavioural therapy (recognizing that we can change behaviours by changing underlying thoughts, well known as CBT). As a third wave approach, ACT is a form of “functional contextualism,” meaning that it considers the function of our behaviours within the context of our lives or our sense of self. This means that no behaviour is judged as “good” or “bad”; we are only interested in whether a behaviour is helping us to live the life we want.

Traditional CBT often involves examining the evidence for our thoughts, and challenging “incorrect” thoughts in order to develop more balanced thoughts and thus more regulated emotions and rational behaviours. ACT also looks at the relationship between thoughts, feelings, and behaviours; but rather than encouraging us to expend energy trying to stop or change our thoughts, ACT helps us evaluate whether thoughts are helpful or not, and provides skills for redirecting our attention away from unhelpful thoughts, and aligning our actions with what is important to us.

ACT helps us to connect to our best selves, even in difficult moments. We learn how to "ride the wave" of emotions, without losing our mooring, and change our behaviour in spite of our challenging emotions. We learn that we have the ability to remain centred, where previously we might have acted in a way that we later regretted. This is a valuable skill that can help us show up in our lives as better parents, partners, bosses or friends.

Aspects of ACT:

  • developing awareness of thoughts and feelings

  • exploration of values

  • mindfulness

  • “unhooking” from unhelpful thoughts

  • acceptance of difficult experiences and emotions

  • acting in alignment with our values

ACT uses several interventions to support “unhooking” from unhelpful thoughts (aka “cognitive defusion”) including mindfulness, developing awareness of our inner monologue, attuning to our emotions, and bringing understanding and self-compassion to our experience. The goals of ACT could be summarized as: “Be open, be present, and do what matters.”

As the name implies, ACT also promotes acceptance as a means to relieving suffering. We have no control over the cards life deals us, but we do have some choice in how we want to respond to life’s challenges. “If you can’t accept the feeling for now, you will be stuck with it, but if you can, you can change your world so you will not have that feeling later” (Hayes & Wilson, 1994). Exploring our values serves as a means to focus our attention to committed action.

If you’d like to learn more about ACT, Russ Harris's book, The Happiness Trap, is a great place to start.

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