Experience greater resilience and well being. Live Mindfully!

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy when we feel we can’t!

Posted by Marie.Bloomfield on April 25, 2015

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy(ACT)is a validated and empirically proven psychological intervention that promotes acceptance and mindfulness as well as commitment strategies to increase psychological strengths and flexibility. This model was initially developed in the late 1980’s by Steven Hayes, Kelly Wilson and Kirk Strosahl.  They propose that life is not necessarily about happiness but rather to be present with what is there, and then act in a way that is guided by our personal core values.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is a mindful way to restore balance and a meaningful life. The aim is to accept difficulties that comes with life that seems out of our control and then to commit to actions aligned with our values to live a good life.  Increasingly Psychologists and Social Workers practice this type of therapy as more and more  research show that it is a powerful mode of  intervention, which has been effective in reducing stress, anxiety, depression, chronic pain, obesity and obsessive/compulsive disorders.  It can be applied in every areas of our daily life at home or in the work place, to improve well-being, resilience and relationships. It is referred to a third wave cognitive behaviour therapy.

Even when we feel we can't...we still can!

ACT teaches easy, simple and practical mindfulness exercises to encourage a state of awareness, acceptance, openness, curiosity as well a greater focus and flexibility. In this way we can respond more effectively and be more fully engaged with whatever we are doing, taking it one moment at the time. The aim is to reduce avoidance and resistance as a way of coping with our life challenges but instead, to realign ourselves with our core values, to commit to what really matters for us.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy help us to:

  • Be fully present and aware, to engage more fully with what we are doing
  • Accept, allow for unhelpful urges and painful experiences to come and go without resistance, without acting on them
  • Defuse or detach ourselves from unpleasant thoughts, emotions or feelings
  • Letting go unhelpful thoughts about the self to become the observing self
  • Explore core values and make decisions on our directions we wish to take
  • Set goals, make plans, problem-solve to take actions, to live those values

Acceptance

By resisting and struggling against unwanted situations or feelings, we often create more inner suffering. Acceptance is not about  “giving up”, but, since we can’t change the unpleasant experiences, we can learn to relate to them in a more detached way by allowing, making room for them without reacting to them. We let the unpleasantness, the pain be, without letting it dominate our state of mind so we don’t get so overwhelmed, like the waves in the ocean coming and going.

Often by accepting what we can’t change, we start being able to see how we can make adjustments and deal with the situation which then seems less out of our control.  Peaceful, quiet acceptance allows us to move forward. Ruminating, obsessing, analysing, keeps us stuck and only deepens our suffering. ACT helps us gently to accept our reality as it is and to use what we have to resolve and begin a more satisfying, purposeful life.

ACT invites us to apply many strategies aiming to:

-Observe the feelings, thoughts and impulses without acting on them

-Being aware of our inadequacies but focussing on our strengths

-Accepting that we are not perfect even though we do our best: being good enough is good enough!

-Recognizing that life is difficult and that we can bear and go beyond our difficulties

- Acknowledging that we may not be in control of what happens in our lives but we can gain more control over how we feel, think and react.

Observing Self

ACT promote the concept of the Observing Self versus the Thinking Self. The Observing Self is this kind of awareness that has been with you since the day you were born, the Self that knows and watches, the Self that is aware and wise. The Thinking Self is the constant activity of our mind that is more or less automatic or unconscious. The Thinking Self is the inner chatter of our brain that continually appraises, judges, assumes, expects, anticipates, ruminates, fantasizes, imagines, analyses and so on. The various practices of mindfulness helps us to join more consciously and intentionally with the Observer Self which is more peaceful, calm and insightful to help us to restore balance and well-being.

Values and Commitment

Our core values are what we believe our life should be about and  determine in part our way of life. Values are behind our priorities and  when our life is align with our values, we experience more feelings of accomplishment and satisfactions.  Living in accordance with our values increases our commitment and engagement.

ACT invites us to review and clarify our personal values and goals to then guide us so we are motivated to live a purposeful life.

Core personal values are different from your goals being less tangible. Values are like a compass, showing the way, giving directions and meaning to our life.  ACT ask  questions like:  What is important and worthwhile for you?  What do you want your life to be about? What kind of person do you want to be? How do you want to be remembered by your family, friends and co-workers?  How can you act in ways that are consistent with your core values? What are your goals that will be aligned with your values? What actions can you take, even if it is difficult an uncomfortable because it is important to you?

Defusion

This is an important element of ACT using the mindfulness approaches. There are many strategies to help to be less fused to our unhelpful, difficult thoughts and feelings. By developing the ability to observe without judging, we create a space where we become the Observer-Self different from the thinking mind,  our thoughts and feelings, knowing that we are more than our thoughts and feelings.  Our thoughts and feelings do not define us entirely. Thoughts and feelings are internal events which we can observe, stand back from, so we are not at their mercy. Using various strategies we can begin becoming more discerning and choose our thoughts and to not feed the unpleasant feelings.  After all feelings and emotions are maintain through chemical reactions fed by the thinking mind, so if we start relaxing through our emotions by become more the Observer-Self, the feeling will eventually will fade away. 

For instance, if I say after making a mistake: “I am stupid”, then I can begin observing this(Observer-Self) and  re-phrasing it: “ I am thinking that I am stupid” or “ I notice that I am thinking that I am stupid”, which then create more space between myself and my thoughts, which then reduce the feelings attached to that thoughts and in time the more I do this the less often I will have that thought and the associated unpleasant feelings.

There are many tools to promote defusion to strengthen our realisation that thoughts and feelings can come and go if we let them. Thoughts and feelings are not facts. The aim is not to reject or push away the experiences but to reduce their intensity so they are less overwhelming and more manageable.

Here are some defusion strategies:

- Observe our thoughts and feelings: drop into our body to explore the physical sensations.
-Watch our inner chatter that is how we are talking to our self especially when we have unpleasant sensations.

- Become aware of the judgments and expectations that we have about our experiences.

-Investigate interpretations and assumptions. Check the accuracy of our thinking.  Are they  true and realistic? Are they kind and helpful?

-Let the unpleasant thoughts and feelings come and go like clouds in the sky or leaves on the stream. (visualisation)

To sum  up

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is often a short term but can also be a long term intervention for more complex conditions. The aim in ACT, is to change our relationships to our thoughts and feelings so that we can respond differently with more flexibility. In addition, acting in alignment with our values promotes resilience and courage so we can live a rich and meaningful life. Even if we feel we can't... we still can!