Consider this: nearly a quarter of Americans suffer from depression or anxiety in any given year. Given this statistic, it is imperative that we find innovative solutions to alleviate mental suffering. One approach in particular that has shown promising results in recent decades is ACT. This acronym confers both the name of this treatment (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), as well as the methodology involved:
- Accept that which is, and what cannot be changed.
- Commit to moving forward in a manner that is in accordance with your values.
- Take action.
The theoretical basis underlying ACT is essentially that pain and discomfort are a natural part of the human condition, and the more we fight our thoughts and feelings, the more they chase and control us. Indeed, as the famous example goes: For the next five minutes, try not to think of a pink elephant. Experience (and ironic process theory) proves that the more you try to suppress a thought, the more frequently you will think of it.
In our “boys don’t cry,” “snap out of it” society, ACT is truly pioneering. It encourages one to be aware of their maladaptive coping strategies, known as “experiential avoidance.” When we feel anxious or sad or angry, our first instinct is to turn away from these feelings, to criticize ourselves, to overeat, binge drink, sleep all day, or lash out at others. ACT informs us to instead turn towards our uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and urges — to accept them exactly as they are, without judgment, and with gentleness.
Ultimately, the goal is to increase psychological flexibility. This essentially means, “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 C. Hayes is credited as the founder of ACT, but my favorite book on the subject is “The Happiness Trap,” written by Dr. Russ Harris. He provides some unique exercises for each of the six tenants of ACT. These tenants include defusion (taking your thoughts with a grain of salt), expansion (making room for uncomfortable sensations in the body), mindfulness (observing the present moment exactly as it is), self-as-context (being aware of your awareness), and value-driven action (which entails both determining what your deepest desires are, and acting in this valued direction).
Thus far, ACT has been proven effective for a wide variety of mental disorders. It has “been shown to to increase effective action; reduce dysfunctional thoughts, feelings, and behaviors; and alleviate psychological distress for individuals with a broad range of mental health issues (including DSM-IV diagnoses, coping with chronic illness, and workplace stress).” Another study suggests that it is just as effective as traditional cognitive therapy.
Whether you suffer from panic disorder, depression, OCD, PTSD, or you just have trouble coping with stress, ACT is founded on the belief that we are all fundamentally human. Because we are human, pain is inevitable. Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.