Updated: Oct 8, 2022
“Psychological flexibility is defined as contacting the present moment fully as a conscious human being, and based on what the situation affords, changing or persisting in behavior in the service of chosen values.”
— STEVEN HAYES, FOUNDER OF THE ACT MODEL
Accept and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is an evidence-based intervention that combines acceptance and mindfulness strategies with commitment and behavioral change strategies to increase psychological flexibility. Its founder defined psychological flexibility as the ability to “make contact with experience in the present moment fully and without defense”. It is being present, fully aware, and to welcome emotions, sensations, thoughts, and feelings (including unwanted ones), and making decisions based on their long-term values. Psychological flexibility also means that you can observe, accept, and adapt to circumstances. In this post we will briefly discuss the 6 pillars of ACT and how you can implement them in your life to make lasting, positive changes in your life and improve your wellbeing.
Acceptance is not about being okay with what is happening. It refers to learn to ‘sit down’ with the unpleasant experience, thoughts, or emotions. To accept them as your human experience. Acceptance (and diffusion) is not an end on itself but a step that allows you to save your energy as you work towards defining your values and identifying what will truly help you create lasting changes (rather than avoiding the experience by ignoring it, for example).
Cognitive diffusion refers to acknowledge that facts are just a part of the puzzle. They provide some information, but they are not an absolute fact. This process entrails stepping back from your thoughts and not be consumed by them. In other words, watch the train pass by without riding on it. It is a change in how we interact or relate to our thoughts and in a certain way diminishing their power over us, their believability, or attachment to them. When you are having a thought such as “I am no good” think instead “I am having a thought that I am no good”.
This principle means being aware and focused on what is happening within and around you- without judgement- instead of worrying about your past or being preoccupied about the future. “Being here and now” may sound easier said than done. Problems of the past, such as trauma or regrets, and problems of the present that impact the future, such as financial struggle, may make “being here and now” difficult. For many, it’d also entail “being here and now” with difficult thoughts and emotions instead of trying to escape them (which brings us back to our first two principles!). Language is used to describe thoughts, feelings, and sensations rather than to predict their outcome or judge them in any way.
It refers to the “observing self”. The part of you that is able to step back and observe your inner reality. Becoming aware of how you experience your surroundings by paying close attention to your physical and emotional sensations. It is being aware of your experience without attaching or investing in it, fostering diffusion and acceptance. You can narrate your experience to gain an understanding of your experience (not of the event itself).
Evaluate what you care most about, what you want your life to be about, what you stand for, and what drives you. Values guide you to behaviors that are meaningful to you. Acceptance, diffusion, being present, and so on, are not ends in themselves but a way to clear the path to creating a life that aligns with your values.
As you may have noticed, the acronym of this approach is “ACT”. You must take effective action, that is, behave in a way conducted by what is valuable to you, creating a fulfilling and satisfying quality of life. By practicing the previous skills, you engage in new patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving.
Each of these principles is driven from within, addressing first psychological barriers and slowly reaching the outer reality through your behaviors. They are skills to be developed by continuous practice. Although we may not be able to immediately change our surroundings, we have the power to self-actualize and change our inner reality. However, it is not all or nothing. Don’t be discouraged if you are unable to go back to them every single time.
Through the therapeutic alliance, counselors create a safe place for clients to explore their inner and outer experiences using metaphor, paradox, and existential exercises to get in contact with their thoughts, feelings, memories, and physical sensations that have been feared and avoided. Through this practice, clients gain skills to reconceptualize and accept their life events, gain clarity about personal values, define concrete goals, and commit to behaviors conducive to desired change.
Kelvin Rivera is a student intern counselor at Cypress Wellness Center working towards a Master's Degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at the University of the Cumberlands. He believes everyone has the power to self-actualize and change their inner reality and feels one of the most important components in our health and well-being is our interpersonal connections. Kelvin uses an ACT-informed approach in therapy and life. Click here to schedule an appointment.
Thaina Cordero is a Certified Sexologist and Care Coordinator at Cypress Wellness Center. She has an MS in Educational Psychology, is a trauma-informed yoga teacher, and doctoral student of Clinical Sexology at Modern Sex Therapy Institute. She has completed Levels 1 and 2 of Clinical Foundations in Gottman Method Couples Therapy. She helps individuals and couples explore their sexual expression, needs, fantasies, preferences, curiosities, and difficulties as they create more pleasurable, satisfying, and fulfilling sex life and relationships. Click here to request an appointment.
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PsychCentral (2019). Brief Summary of the 6 Core Processes of Acceptance and Commitment