Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: Stop Resisting and Relax

So often the focus of therapy seems to be change, problem solving, and symptom management. We ask questions such as: How can I decrease my anxiety? How can I feel less depressed?How do I change my negative thinking? The list goes on and on.

However what if the focus of therapy became living a life focused on your values and accepting your current thoughts and emotions. It sounds like a strange idea: Accept my symptoms as they are, don’t try to change them. Why would I do that? All I want to do is feel less anxious/depressed/angry! Well the reason is that ACT, the acronym for Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is an empirically based form of therapy that has proven to be effective for addictions, depression, anxiety, psychosis, self-harm, eating disorders, as well as a range of other clinical conditions. One impressive study by Bach and Hayes (2002) found that clients with Schizophrenia who had only four hours of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy reduced their risk of re-admission to the hospital in the next six months by 50%!

The main goal of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is to help people create a meaningful life, based on their values, while accepting the painful aspects that are a part of life for all of us. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (and many other therapeutic models) is founded on the concept that by trying to avoid or get rid of the pain that is naturally part of being a human we actually create more suffering for ourselves and it leads to increased anxiety, depression, and addictive behaviors. A helpful metaphor to understand this that I often use with clients is the idea of quicksand. If you were to fall into quicksand today on your way to work the worst possible thing you could do is to struggle, all of the flailing arms and resistance to the quicksand will only make you sink, and sink fast. However, if instead you just acknowledged that you had fallen into some quicksand and relaxed, laid back, and just let yourself float at the top you would survive. Would this be anyone’s natural reaction? No of course not! But it is the reaction that will be the most helpful. We can learn to do the same thing with the emotional struggles that we face. By learning to notice our thoughts, distance ourselves from them, and accept them as they are without too much resistance we can live a more rich life.

One of my favorite parts of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (that I find immensely helpful with my clients at BrightQuest) is living a life that is oriented towards personal values. Since the whole purpose of BrightQuest’s program is to help launch people into independent lives, I love focusing my work on what values people want to base their life around. Being in treatment that is focused on launching is a perfect time to discover and find one’s values that will guide the actions and goals one sets for themselves.

Bach, P. & Hayes, Steven, C. (2002). The use of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to prevent the rehospitalization of psychotic patients: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 70, 1129-1139.