Two female friends happily hugging each other

When a person experiences a negative, traumatic or hurtful event, the gut reaction is to put up an emotional buffer, in order to limit the amount of pain and suffering felt. It’s part of our nature to avoid or dislike situations of potential suffering — we don’t like going to the dentist for fear of discomfort, we practice defensive driving to avoid accidents, we get nervous when called into the boss’s office, etc. We always try and dodge that which will create uncomfortable feelings, including dealing with past times of hurt. 

However, it’s like shaking a bottle of soda — the harder and longer it’s shaken, the greater the pressure builds until it explodes and makes a mess. The plastic lid isn’t designed to withstand that kind of pressure. The same concept goes for us humans — the longer the problem is kept inside and avoided, the more likely the pain is going to build over time. This emotional bottling can yield catastrophic consequences. 

What is ACT — Acceptance and Commitment Therapy?

Pain and suffering are simply a part of life. However, ACT allows one to adopt a new, healthy and flexible way of thinking about these difficulties. It opens the doors to change how we perceive pain, and instead of clicking into auto-pilot and panicking or running as far from discomfort as possible, helps us accept the pain and move forward accordingly without being controlled by our thoughts or emotions. 

Acceptance and commitment therapy is the offspring of relational frame theory, that is, the theory that the brain’s ability to rationally solve problems isn’t very effective in solving psychological pain. Sometimes, psychological problems just aren’t that easy to wrap one’s mind around, which can lead to further frustration and confusion regarding the subject. 

According to the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science, ACT is defined as “a unique empirically based psychological intervention that uses acceptance and mindfulness strategies, together with commitment and behavior change strategies, to increase psychological flexibility.” In other words, it literally allows clients to create a life for themselves full of richness and meaning while cooperating with suffering as an inevitable part of the story. 

Psychological flexibility & the six core processes

The benefits of psychological flexibility (the ultimate goal of ACT) are experienced through the practice of mindfulness, that is, accepting the present moment without comment or judgment, and the six core processes of ACT

  • Acceptance –  It goes against our natural tendency to deny or ignore painful experiences and actively choose to allow them to exist 
  • Cognitive defusion – It allows clients to change the way they respond to their thoughts and feelings, giving them the tools needed to face challenges and overcome them. It encourages a lesser focus on the negative side of these challenges but rather a neutral outlook on their existence
  • Being present – This is similar to mindfulness in that it simply is recognizing and viewing an experience as that — an experience. No attempt is made to change the experience and no judgment is passed on the experience or the feelings and emotions it arouses
  • Self as context – This is the belief that you are not what you experience; rather, there is a self outside of the painful experience that keeps you from being defined by a stressful or traumatic situation
  • Values – These are whatever we choose to work towards. They are what gives meaning to life and are therefore important in directing our steps toward the meaningful life we want to live
  • Committed action – Choosing to take action allows us to stay committed to our values to reach our goals of a healthy life

The core processes are not the main goals of ACT; rather they are the vital pieces of ACT that allow clients to achieve psychological flexibility and internal peace. 

The ACT difference

ACT doesn’t differ drastically in every way from traditional counseling; rather, it differs crucially in its treatment of pain and suffering as something to be accepted instead of avoided. Instead of retracting to the “fight or flight” response, ACT offers a neutral, peaceful middle ground. It allows one to accept pain and suffering, and/or the negative emotions surrounding an event, with neutrality as simply another moment in life.

For more information on acceptance and commitment therapy as a service provided to help limit substance use habits, reach out to Silvermist Recovery today.