How do you handle unpleasant emotions? Some people try to ignore these feelings or push them away — and that’s understandable. Feeling anger or sadness, for example, may make you feel uncomfortable.
But denying or ignoring these feelings doesn’t make them disappear. Instead, it may cause you to develop unhelpful ways of coping with certain thoughts or experiences that trigger these emotions.
Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) offers a more effective way to handle emotions that you struggle with. This approach involves learning to accept your emotions — even if they’re unpleasant or uncomfortable. It also helps you work on making changes that better align with your values.
In the following sections, we’ll walk you through ACT, some common ACT techniques, and its benefits.
ACT is a type of psychotherapy or talk therapy that focuses on learning to accept emotions. Steven C. Hayes developed this form of therapy in the 1980s to help people tolerate unpleasant feelings instead of avoiding them.
ACT involves helping you acknowledge and accept all of your emotions. It also helps you identify your values and make changes that allow you to live in alignment with them.
This approach differs from other therapeutic approaches, like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Instead of working on reducing unwanted or undesirable emotions, ACT helps you understand that they’re part of life. This puts you in a position to work on handling these emotions more adaptively.
ACT isn’t designed to treat a specific disorder or condition. It’s a treatment approach that has a wide range of uses. In fact, it’s been shown to benefit individuals with various psychological disorders or medical conditions. ACT may also be used effectively as part of grief therapy. It may help people adopt healthy behaviors, too, like giving up smoking.
Some of the diagnoses, conditions, and situations that ACT may help with include:
ACT is based on the concept that certain barriers keep us from reaching our goals or living by our values. The FEAR acronym helps explain these barriers. FEAR stands for:
Fusion of thoughts means automatically accepting certain thoughts as truth. Evaluating experiences involves judging and labeling our experiences. Avoidance refers to what we do to avoid emotions and experiences we don’t like. Giving reasons means rationalizing to excuse our behaviors.
The goal of ACT is to help you learn to overcome these barriers using several techniques. Below, we’ll review these interventions to help you understand how this type of therapy works.
This technique teaches you to perceive your inner experiences as passing events in your mind — not absolute truths. Learning to view your thoughts this way helps reduce their impact.
For example, you might see your thoughts as clouds drifting through your mind. Or you might say, “I notice that I’m having this thought,” which helps you distance yourself from it. Singing unhelpful or maladaptive thoughts or saying them in a silly voice may help take away their power.
If you tell yourself not to think of something or feel a certain emotion, this may backfire. Trying to control your thoughts and feelings may actually make things worse. ACT involves understanding that control is the problem when it comes to dealing with thoughts and feelings that make you uncomfortable.
For example, you tell yourself to stop feeling shy or scared in social situations. Trying to control these feelings may make you even more scared than before, causing you to start avoiding social situations or becoming even more withdrawn around others. ACT may help you learn to tolerate these feelings instead.
Running from your thoughts and feelings may mean you’re missing out on living your life to the fullest. Instead of struggling against them, you can learn to accept them as part of your everyday life. That’s what ACT helps you do; this type of therapy teaches you to embrace difficult emotions and thoughts so you may lead a more fulfilling life.
For example, let’s say you have a hard time handling feelings of anger. You might berate yourself for feeling this way. Or you might bottle up your anger instead of dealing with it. This may cause you to avoid certain situations or people in your life that might trigger anger. ACT can help you become comfortable with your anger and accept that this emotion is okay to feel.
Mindfulness is a powerful tool for releasing control and observing thoughts and feelings without any judgment. Being mindful means you stay focused on the present moment. You don’t worry about the future or the past or let your mind wander. Instead, you learn to let thoughts and feelings happen without judging them.
How can you work on developing mindfulness skills? You might focus on your breathing, do a walking meditation, or tune into each of your senses in your current environment. Mindfulness is part of ACT, so your therapist can teach you different mindfulness exercises.
You can think of creative hopelessness as another way of learning to accept emotions and thoughts. This ACT technique helps you explore what you want in life and how you’ve been trying to achieve that. The goal is to help you realize how ineffective your coping strategies have been when they involve denying or avoiding negative thoughts and feelings. Then, therapy presents a more adaptive approach to getting what you want.
For example, you might discuss how you want to advance your career. But you keep talking yourself out of striving to succeed out of a fear of failure. Mental health professionals can help you understand why your actions haven’t worked and suggest more helpful behaviors to cope with your fears and accomplish your goal.
Your identity isn’t just your thoughts and feelings. Self-as-context in ACT helps you view your identity as an ongoing process based on ever-changing context instead of being static or fixed. This technique helps you understand your concept of self as the observer instead of the thoughts and feelings you have.
For example, you might think of yourself as an ocean and your thoughts and feelings as the fish swimming around in it. The ocean is a lasting entity with staying power while the fish come and go. Working on self-as-context may help reduce the power that emotions and thoughts have on you and improve self-awareness.
Your personal values can serve as a guide to helping you lead a meaningful life through committed action — but you have to know what they are first.
Values clarification helps you identify the values you want to focus on in your life. You can then set goals and base your actions on these values instead of a desire to escape difficult thoughts and feelings.
You can choose different values for different areas of your life, like relationships, work, and health. For example, showing respect might be your value in your relationships, and being reliable might be your value at work. Knowing your values helps you make behavior changes and decisions that allow you to enjoy more fulfillment in your life.
Why is ACT effective for treating a wide range of conditions and experiences? The benefits it provides can help you understand why this therapeutic approach works so well for so many different use cases.
Cognitive or psychological flexibility refers to your ability to adapt your thoughts and behaviors based on your current environment. Since your environment is always changing, this takes some practice and skill. Learning to accept your emotions and thoughts through ACT may make it easier for you to adapt to changing environments.
For example, you might struggle to cope at work when you feel stressed or overwhelmed. Cognitive flexibility can help you switch gears and find ways to calm yourself and think clearly instead of feeling stuck.
Accepting your emotions doesn’t mean letting them control you. Regulating your emotions is an important part of the acceptance process. This involves handling your emotions — even intense ones — in adaptive ways.
ACT helps you learn to acknowledge, tolerate, and regulate your emotions. Think of it as a balancing act between allowing your emotions to happen but not allowing them to overwhelm you.
For example, you might experience strong waves of sadness if you’re grieving. ACT therapy techniques can help you handle these intense emotions in helpful ways. Instead of trying to avoid these feelings, you learn to accept and regulate them as they happen.
If you have intense fears that others are observing and judging you, this is a sign of social anxiety. This kind of anxiety can affect your quality of life, making it hard to handle social situations. You might avoid interacting with others as often as you can to prevent feelings of anxiety. ACT therapy can help reduce social anxiety, so you can feel comfortable around others.
ACT teaches you to tolerate nervousness and other emotions and thoughts that social anxiety may cause. It also helps you strengthen your sense of self, giving difficult emotions and thoughts less power. Instead of feeling judged, you can stay present and handle social interactions with greater confidence.
Experiencing trauma symptoms may cause you to do anything possible to avoid triggering situations or painful thoughts. This keeps you from being able to live your life based on your values. It may also lead to maladaptive coping behaviors, like substance use or social withdrawal. ACT offers an effective way to reduce the severity of trauma symptoms.
How does this work? Mindfulness, cognitive defusion, and other ACT techniques give you the tools needed to reduce the hold your thoughts and feelings have on you. This allows you to work on healing, developing self-compassion, and making committed actions that improve your quality of life.
With ACT being such a powerful way to address a wide range of issues, it might be the right approach for you. Of course, this depends on your specific needs and treatment goals.
If you’re ready to seek therapy, SonderMind can help. Let SonderMind connect you with therapists online or in person to help you accept your emotions and commit to making values-based, adaptive changes in your life.
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