What is ACT – Acceptance and Commitment Therapy?

Jan 09, 2017

By: Chris Ochocki, LPCC


I have recently undertaken a training in the model of therapy called ACT.  It stands for acceptance and commitment therapy.  The training covered many of the basics of the model and was taught by a hilarious and insightful trainer named, Russ Harris.  He has written several books on the subject, covering the basic ideas of the ACT model in The Happiness Trap, sharing wisdom about how ACT can be beneficial for relationships in Act With Love, ideas about using the ACT model when life really throws the book at you in The Reality Slap, and how to build your self-confidence in The Confidence Gap, etc.  I will not spend this time getting into the nitty-gritty of the model, originally developed by Steven Hayes, except to say, a main premise for the model is to understand that our brain is wired, through many thousands of years of evolution, to try to problem-solve.  The way it solves problems is not typically effective for today’s living, or beneficial to us, most of the time, when we buy into its solutions.

For example, the Fight or Flight (F/F) response of our central nervous system is designed to keep us alive and safe, so that we may pass on our genetic code to off-spring.  Those early ancestors who had a heightened and effective F/F response, who were able to process danger quickly and problem-solve solutions effectively, were the ones who survived.  For the other early human species who did not develop that learning sense quick enough, their fate was to become dinner to the giant beasts in the woods, or other such ending.   A little over-simplified, yes, but also a way to explain the need for the development of F/F in those days.  But in today’s world, most of us do not need to worry about things like giant beasts lurking in the woods outside of our caves that are poised to eat us upon departure.  I know the biggest worries, ones that sometimes create an F/F response in my body and mind when I leave my house in the morning, are more typically about how much traffic there is on my ride to work, will my child get her shoes on quick enough to leave on time, did they plow the roads last night or how late will I be arriving to my destination given the preceding experiences.  Not exactly a life or death matter really, but our mind is not acutely aware of that fact and gives me a dose of F/F responses just for good measure.  So leaving my house in the morning may contain the same elemental anxious/fear/anger responses as the earliest humans’ experienced.  Our brain is unaware that the world has changed drastically and continues to process and react to information and stimulus like we need to be on guard, protecting against all sorts of dangers, real and imagined, all the time.  It is because of this brain development that we have survived to reach the year 2017, as a human species, so give it some thanks.  It is also because of this unique problem-solving ability of our mind that we have great inventions; like the mini-computers we hold in our hands that have the ability to travel around the globe and access to all sorts of life-enhancing information.  We call them cell-phones.  Not to mention, the creative genius of our minds have invented a lot of other things that make our lives more comfortable, enjoyable and easier than our much earlier ancestors.  So again, give it some thanks.

In the same light of this F/F responses, our mind has two basic solutions when it is faced with a difficult and painful challenge.  Solution number one, which we all have experienced, is to try to avoid the thing that is causing the fear, pain or other unpleasant experience.  It makes perfect sense, in simplistic terms, that our mind would not want us to get bogged down in feelings of hurt, pain, sadness, fear, anxiety (to name a few) because being bogged down in them means that we will not be able to do anything else that is important to us for survival. It is necessary to be able to distract at times to be effective.  If the brain is essentially an “avoid pain, don’t get killed machine”, then it would naturally assume that things that cause us to feel uncomfortable would be causing us harm.  It would also make sense that logic would not want us to waste any time being anything but joyful and happy, since, as our brain asserts, that is the point of life now a days.

The alternative natural response for our minds F/F, or solution number two, is that our mind will work very hard to reflect deeply on the pain, on the causes of this pain, in hopes of finding a reasonable solution so that this pain never happens again.  The brain asserts that if it understands, if we can somehow figure out what is to blame, who is responsible or what caused the pain, then we would know what to avoid in lieu of future pain.  It will do its best to conjure up all sorts of lessons, images, words, sensations or memories in order to try to find “the perfect solution”.  It is as if coming up with a workable hypothesis would prevent these feelings or experiences from ever occurring again.   The problem lies in that holding tightly to either of these two solutions, avoidance of pain, or knowing and stewing in the causes of the pain, leads humans to choose ineffective ways of being most of the time.  It leads us to be stuck in our misery, with our head in the clouds, searching wildly for solutions or really distracting us from the real gift of life.  Plainly put, the life you have been given in this moment of time is to be experienced.  Experiencing it means it will be joyful and painful and both are needed for it to have any meaning, just like the movie Inside Out teaches us.

I am going to give you an example from my own life that will help to show these points about our feelings, our mind and their inefficacy at solving things when fused with them.  Let’s say I have had a bad day at work and I come home stressed out about it.  As I enter my house, I am reflecting on the worries from my workday readily being replayed in my mind.  I walk into my castle, a sense of relief washing over me, to be home and safe and with the knowledge I can distract from the worry of the day.  I immediately notice my child has just painted our new leather chair and floor this afternoon in the most brilliant hues of blue and pink.  She is happily sitting there smiling at me, saying “Daddy, look at the beautiful colors I did, isn’t it great?” She has paint all over her clothes and hair and hands and footprints sealed into the plush soft leather and all over our rugs, hardwood floors and walls.  I would immediately feel angry at my child for her misbehavior and most likely will yell at and punish her, maybe sending her to her room, maybe saying how disappointed I am with her behavior, or worse than that.  I will still continue to feel stressed from my work day, but it is for sure on the back burner, as my anger has taken over about this new problem I am faced with.  I may begin to get stuck in my mind, thinking about what the heck her mother is doing during this Picasso creation event, how unfair it is that I have to deal with this right now, how my home should be the one place I should be able to relax and my mind will be spilling out all over the place with its own versions of the story of “This Is Unfair!” Being hooked into these thoughts will only lead me to become more angry at my life, my day, my child and probably my partner.  And now I may say or do things that are not helping the situation, probably bringing more tears from my just smiling daughter and a yelling match with my partner.  None of this so far has allowed me to manage my original stress from my work day, which is now boiling into insensitive rage.  In the very near future, that anger/rage and stress that I felt in that moment of walking through the door will probably give way to a feeling of guilt for yelling at my child and further anger/ resentment with my partner for not being watchful enough.  It will also lead to anxiety that I am acting like a “horrible father and husband right now”, which in turn will cause me to feel more pain and maybe lead to more anger and hurt and stress, and yelling and stomping around, as I attempt to push away all these feelings of guilt, shame, sadness, stress, disappointment and anger.

Pushing away, or stewing in my feelings without being aware and present, leads to a cycle of unhelpful repetitions of action, which further causes me to act in ways that lead to isolation and guilt in my own home.  I may choose then, in the service of not feeling bad, after ripping into both people I love dearly, to do something extra nice for my child after the punishment is done.  Let’s call it a make-up for yelling, since I was so harsh before.  I may decide, as well, to be extra nice to my partner for tearing into her about her ineffective parenting.  And yet, I will wrestle with this all throughout the evening because I will also have the nagging thought that I need to show both of them that this is not okay with me and I should not have to come home to this after a long, stressful day at work.  This entire dramatic scenario may last only a few minutes, probably no more than an hour, and yet I would have cycled through a variety of feelings, judgements, thoughts and made choices that I now have to live with and most likely will regret on some level, as I am reminded that I feel like a heel throughout the night for my “irrational actions and behaviors”.

You can see where I am going with this and hopefully can see how this bouncing around, avoiding, lashing out and other choices made while being hooked with our minds and feelings can get anyone caught up in a moment that will lead to unpleasant consequences.   The brilliance of ACT is that it is counter-intuitive.  It allows us to thank our brilliant minds at its solution-focused ability, unhook from its judgements, perceptions, sensations, urges, self-talk and not get bogged down in the thinking pattern that is ineffective and unhelpful in most situations.  As well, ACT encourages us to make room for all the feelings that exist in any moment, instead of pushing them away or stewing in them.   ACT encourages us to be compassionate, to ourselves and others, in our painful experiences.  ACT calls us to be present, to work at stepping away and taking a moment to get out of the immediacy of our thoughts and feelings.  It teaches us to make room for our feelings, so they don’t just pop out backwards and sideways, and encourages us to have the human empathy to allow ourselves to make mistakes with the gift of learning from them.  It focuses on learning from all our terrible experiences and encourages us to apply that learning in a useful way, to guide our future experiences, so that they may be meaningful and lived by our values.  It is reflective by nature and applicable because the reflection is done in the service of learning and growing, not in finding blame or thinking that we can avoid painful experiences.  ACT can be useful as an intervention with many experiences that bring someone to therapy; depression, anxiety, PTSD, relational challenges, addiction, eating, self-harming, suicidal ideation to name a few.  And just like Joy discovers the importance of Sadness in the movie Inside Out, we can work together to find the importance in your life in taking meaningful action in the service of your values, together.

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