ACT is a mindfulness-based therapy which helps us to change our relationship with, and therefore be less negatively impacted by, things that are out of our control (such as difficult emotions and life experiences). It also aims to increase the focus on how, alongside these difficult experiences, we can live a life that is rich and meaningful to us.
The model recognises that sometimes we can get very tied up with our thoughts, feelings and the things we experience. Some of the things our mind tells us in these situations can be helpful or positive, but others can be upsetting or cause us to feel anxious (e.g. ‘I am not good enough’, or ‘I look stupid’). Very often when we have negative thoughts, our brain tries to control or ‘get rid of’ them, which can actually backfire and cause these thoughts to increase. We may also try and distract ourselves from these feelings by using alcohol or substances, or we may withdraw from difficult situations as a way to cope. Whilst these coping strategies may seem helpful to us in the short-term, in the longer-term, we may find ourselves going back to these same strategies over and over again and it can feel like we are stuck in a vicious cycle. In fact, some of these solutions can add to our difficulties or even create new ones. For example, someone who feels as though they look stupid in social situations may stop going out altogether, which in the long term may lead to them becoming isolated from others.
How does it work?
In ACT, the aim is not to change the content of or get rid of distressing thoughts or difficult feelings, but rather to change our relationship with them. Through being able to accept that difficult experiences are inevitable and part of life, and through learning effective ways to respond to these experiences, we have more ‘headspace’ to devote to being able to live more ‘mindfully’ and focus more on developing a life that is rich and meaningful to us.
Who is it for?
ACT has proven effectiveness in helping with a wide range of mental health and physical health difficulties. These include depression, anxiety, OCD, workplace stress and chronic pain.
What is involved?
ACT uses a mixture of metaphors, mindfulness skills, practical exercises and values-based interventions. There are six core principles of ACT which help to guide therapy. The six core principles are:
- Cognitive defusion: This refers to being able to observe our thoughts, memories and situations for what they are – words, languages and images –as opposed to what they can appear to be—frightening events, rules that must be followed and objective truths.
- Acceptance: This refers to the process of allowing unpleasant emotions, sensations, urges, and other experiences to come and go without ‘battling’ with them, running from them, or giving them unwarranted attention.
- Contact with the present moment: This refers to the process of bringing full awareness to the here-and-now with openness and interest, focusing on, and engaging fully with what you are doing moment-to-moment.
- The Observing Self: The observing self can be likened to the sky and our thoughts, feelings and other events can be likened to the weather. From this ‘birds eye view’ perspective, it is possible to detach from our experiences which helps us to recognise that we are not our thoughts, feelings, memories or urges. With this perspective, we are able to recognise that our difficult thoughts and emotions will also pass, and by not reacting to ‘the storm’, we can develop a sense of calmness and tolerance for these experiences.
- Values: This refers to clarifying what is most important to us, what sort of person we want to be and what is significant and meaningful to us.
- Committed action: This principle refers to setting goals (guided by our values) and taking effective action to work towards achieving them.
Where can I access it?
You can access talking therapies, including ACT, via the clinicians registered on the AnonyMind platform. You can access ACT, and other talking therapies, through the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) service on the NHS. A GP can refer you or you can refer yourself to an NHS IAPT service online. Some employers and educational institutions also offer free talking therapy services to their employees and students, your HR department and college/university tutors will be best placed to help you with this. Some charities, including MIND and Rethink mental illness also offer free telephone group and/or face-to-face psychological support.