What is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy?

In this article, Dr Victor Kwok, Senior Consultant Psychiatrist, and Dr Farah Idu Jion, Principal Psychologist at Private Space Medical, delve into the topic of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and its potential as a valuable tool for improving your mental well-being.
Psychological therapy, a long-established and effective method for managing mental health conditions, has witnessed the emergence of new approaches alongside the widely known Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Among these, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) stands out as a prominent representative of the third wave of therapeutic methods.
Pronounced as a single word, ACT is an evidence-based treatment addressing conditions such as stress, burnout, depression, anxiety, and chronic pain. Unlike the pursuit of happiness often desired by clients, ACT posits that a fulfilling life encompasses the entirety of the human experience, including sadness, disappointment, pain, grief, and fear – this is the acceptance aspect of ACT. Clients learn to stop struggling with difficult and often painful thoughts too. This approach thus differs from CBT, where the emphasis is on “fighting” negative thoughts with positive ones to feel better.
A central theme in ACT is cultivating mindfulness and being present in the moment. This involves noticing, naming, and acknowledging internal thoughts, emotions, and sensations, as well as our external world, with an attitude of openness and curiosity. Mindfulness techniques are integral to this process and the foundation to developing “psychological flexibility” which is a key aim of ACT.
Defining a “purposeful life” is a common challenge for clients. In ACT, a purposeful life aligns with one’s values, and psychologists work collaboratively with clients to explore their values, hopes, and goals. Through this exploration, psychologists assist clients in developing behaviours aligned with what they find meaningful to them—this is the commitment aspect of ACT. For example, if a client values connections but is hampered by mood difficulties, the psychologist will share techniques to manage their difficult thoughts and feelings and concurrently work with them to find avenues to build connections starting with smaller steps if necessary, such as texting trusted friends.
With increased psychological flexibility, it is hoped that clients are able to mindfully step back from their thoughts, open themselves up to the whole range of emotions and are free to direct their time, energy and resources towards their values so they may live a fuller, richer and meaningful life.

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