What is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

What is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

This week Orlando Counselor Krista Bringley discusses Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and shares how it can be an effective treatment for anxiety.

Krista Jean Bringley, MA
Registered Mental Health Counselor Intern

Have you ever heard of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)?  Most people probably haven’t, and it is one of my very favorite methods of therapy, especially for anxiety and anxious thoughts!  If you’ve ever tried Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), you know about talking back to our thoughts and reminding ourselves that there are alternate possibilities (besides the worst-case scenario our brain has jumped to).  These are excellent, evidence-based ways of helping ourselves with difficult thoughts, and work very well in many situations.  However, for some people, or in some situations, talking back to their thoughts gets them into a debate that seems to never end.  This is partially because the brain is very good at identifying problems, so if you’re worried about why you haven’t heard back from a loved one, and you say back to your brain “She’s probably busy at work right now, since I know this is a busy time of day for her.  I’m sure she’ll get back to me as soon as she can.” Your brain might say “But what if she’s angry at you?” or “But what if something bad happened to her?”  One option is to continue talking back, and again, for many people and in many situations, this can work well.  However, if you find yourself getting stuck responding to your brain’s many protests and suddenly way into the future (“She hates me; we’ll never be friends again!”), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy has another option for you!

Imagine you’re dealing with a little sibling who won’t leave you alone.  They’re following you around, repeating what you say.  You could try arguing with them or reasoning with them, asking them to leave you alone, but I bet you know those things are unlikely to work here!  So what else could you even do?  Well, I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen it work to pretend like they aren’t bothering you!  When they realize they aren’t having an effect, they tend to get bored and go away!  This is one of the central ideas in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy!  It goes kind of like this:  when we engage with our thoughts or try to push them away, we’re giving them attention.  And if we say “Don’t think about that!” we tend to immediately start thinking about that!  (The classic example is “Don’t think about a white bear.”  Almost all of you are now thinking of a white bear, because you’re trying not to… it’s a catch-22!)  Instead, we want to pick and choose which thoughts are useful!

Here’s why: our thoughts are just thoughts, they don’t define us.  As a matter of fact, sometimes we think some pretty weird things!  Have you ever had a thought that you immediately wondered “where the heck did that come from, that’s not me?!”  I bet sometimes you’ve been able to let that thought go, right?  That’s because you have a Wise Mind, which is separate from your Thinking Mind!  You’re able to observe yourself and decide what you do and do not like!  When you can slow down and really look at your thoughts, you can decide what to do instead of letting your thoughts control you!  That means you can decide if it’s worth your time to debate why that loved one isn’t getting back to you or if you’d rather make some room to let that thought sit there next to you while you focus on what you wanted to do today!

Now, even though this is easy to say, I’m definitely not saying this is easy to do!  Observing our thoughts instead of grabbing on to them isn’t what we’re used to doing, so it takes practice!  What’s even tougher is staying put as our thoughts scream for attention, pushing the buttons they know will rile us up, just like our little siblings do!  AND, if we can learn to just observe while our thoughts try to get our attention, we can also learn to let them stick around as long as they need to while we focus on doing and thinking about what’s most important to us!  Our thoughts don’t get to control us!

Important tools in learning how to observe our thoughts include mindfulness and distress tolerance, so when I teach Acceptance and Commitment Therapy I talk about breathing, coping skills and labeling our thoughts.  A good way to observe is to just say “Oh, there’s my brain telling me the ‘you haven’t heard from her so she hates you’ story. “  Just labeling it as a story helps us remember that it isn’t necessarily true, and we can choose whether or not to engage.

If this has you intrigued about another way to deal with getting caught in a whirlwind of thoughts by choosing where you want to go rather than letting your thoughts choose for you, this boat video and this bus video do a good job of telling you a little more about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and what is possible!  If you’d like to learn more, I also highly recommend the book The Happiness Trap.  And if you’d like a partner in applying Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to your life, reach out to me at kbringley@gmail.com or 407-205-2574.  I, and the rest of our Orlando counselors at Life Skills Resource Group, are ready to walk with you towards your goals, even if your thoughts aren’t comfortable with you getting there!  You can reach our group to find the counselor for you at 407-355-7378.  We look forward to helping you!