• Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) combines tools from mindfulness and behavioural therapy to help clients find psychological flexibility and make lasting change

  • Therapist Dave Latham explores the benefits

  • We have ACT therapists available here

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is a type of psychotherapy that falls under the category of third-wave cognitive behavioural therapies. ACT was developed in the late 20th century as an approach to help individuals better handle difficult thoughts and feelings and to promote psychological flexibility, which is the ability to be open, adaptable, and effective in the face of challenging circumstances.

ACT is based on several core principles and techniques:

1. Acceptance

In ACT, clients are encouraged to accept and be mindful of their thoughts and emotions, even if those thoughts and emotions are distressing. Acceptance does not mean resignation but rather a willingness to acknowledge and experience these feelings without judgment.

Instead of struggling against or avoiding their emotions, clients learn to be present with them and allow them to come and go naturally. This acceptance can reduce the struggle and resistance that often exacerbate emotional distress.

2. Cognitive diffusion

This technique helps individuals distance themselves from their thoughts, recognising that thoughts are not facts. Clients learn to "de-fuse" from unhelpful thought patterns and gain a greater sense of cognitive flexibility.

3. Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a central component of ACT. Clients are taught to be fully present in the moment, observing their thoughts and emotions without attachment or judgment. This practice of mindfulness can help individuals better understand their experiences and make more intentional choices.

4. Values clarification

ACT helps individuals identify their core values and what truly matters to them in life. This process can guide individuals in making choices that align with their values.

When individuals align their actions with their values, it can lead to greater emotional satisfaction.

5. Committed action

ACT emphasises the importance of acting in line with one's values, even in the presence of difficult thoughts and emotions. This is the 'commitment' part. This can lead to a sense of accomplishment and greater emotional wellbeing by focusing on what one can control and by taking steps toward desired life goals.

6. Psychological flexibility

The goal of ACT is to increase psychological flexibility, which means being able to adapt to changing situations, being open to experiences, and acting in line with one's values. It involves accepting the full range of human experiences and making choices based on values rather than trying to eliminate uncomfortable thoughts or emotions.

ACT is used to treat a variety of psychological issues, including anxiety disorders, depression, substance abuse, chronic pain, and more. 

It is particularly effective for individuals who struggle with experiential avoidance, which is the tendency to avoid or suppress uncomfortable thoughts and emotions, and for those who are stuck in patterns of thought and behaviour that are not in line with their values. By reducing experiential avoidance, individuals can face their emotional symptoms, gradually desensitizing themselves to triggers, and ultimately reducing the impact of those symptoms on their wellbeing.

ACT can support clients to develop greater psychological flexibility, enabling them to lead more fulfilling and meaningful lives, even in the presence of ongoing challenges and discomfort.

By teaching individuals how to relate differently to their thoughts and emotions and guiding them in the direction of their values, ACT empowers people to experience greater emotional wellbeing and lead more fulfilling lives. It's important to note that ACT is typically delivered through individual therapy sessions with a trained therapist, and the effectiveness of the therapy often depends on the individual's commitment to the process and their willingness to practice the techniques learned in therapy.

Dave Latham is a verified Welldoing therapist in Worcestershire and online

Further reading

Read about different types of therapy

Watch our Types of Therapy YouTube Playlist

Deciding on therapy: A leap of faith?