What is ACT?

ACT was developed by Dr. Steven Hayes, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Nevada, Reno in conjunction with Dr. Kelly Wilson and Dr. Kirk Strosahl. ACT is based on relational frame theory (RFT), a comprehensive theory of language and cognition that is framed as an offshoot of behaviour analysis.

What makes ACT Different from traditional CBT?

ACT differs from traditional cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in that rather than trying to teach people to better control their thoughts, feelings, sensations, memories and other private events, ACT teaches them to “just notice”, accept, and embrace their private events, especially previously unwanted ones.In contrast to the assumption of ‘healthy normality’ of Western psychology, ACT assumes that the psychological processes of a normal human mind are often destructive and create psychological suffering, generated by experiential avoidance and emotional control.

Symptom reduction is not a goal of ACT, based on the view that on-going attempts to get rid of ‘symptoms’ can create clinical disorders in the first place. In ACT, the aim is to transform our relationship with our difficult thoughts and feelings, so that we no longer perceive them as ‘symptoms’. Instead, we learn to perceive them as harmless, even if uncomfortable, transient psychological events. Ironically, it is through this process that ACT actually achieves symptom reduction – but as a by-product and not the goal.

What is the goal of ACT?

The goal of ACT is to create a rich and meaningful life, while accepting the pain that inevitably goes with it. ACT training is about taking effective action guided by our deepest values and in which we are fully present and engaged. It is only through mindful action that we can create a meaningful life. Of course, as we attempt to create such a life, we will encounter all sorts of barriers, in the form of unpleasant and unwanted ‘private experiences’ (thoughts, images, feelings, sensations, urges, and memories).

ACT provides skills, along with a wide range of experiential exercises and values-guided behavioural interventions, as an effective way to handle these private experiences.A key component of ACT is ‘mindfulness’: a transformative mental state of awareness, openness and focus. In the past, you could only learn mindfulness skills through ancient Eastern practices such as yoga, meditation or martial arts. These days, thanks to ACT, mindfulness skills are quick and easy to learn, without any need to meditate. You can literally learn them in a few minutes, and they will rapidly and effectively help you to reduce the impact and influence of painful feelings, let go of distressing or unhelpful thoughts, break the grip of self-defeating habits, and engage fully in your life.

ACT and Values

Living our lives in alignment with what truly matters to us isn’t about searching, trying to be something other than what we are. All this searching takes enormous effort, sometimes it pays off, but often it doesn’t and we are right back where we started. Worse, it pulls us out of our lives. Searching for peace of mind can be like this. Most people want it, but few of us can find it and keep it around long enough to convince ourselves, let alone anyone else, that we’ve got it.

Maybe that’s the problem here. Maybe peace of mind isn’t something we have or find, but something we do, nurture, and cultivate in ourselves. It is about living with ourselves, our histories, and going forward to create a life worthy of our time on this planet. That kind of peace is durable. It can’t be bought, lost, or stolen. It’s hard, yes. But it can be sweet too.


Further Readings

  • An overview of Acceptance and Commitment Training by Dr. Russ Harris
  • Benefits of ACT: Ruiz, 2010; Hayes et al., 2006; Powers et al., 2009
  • Benefits of Mindfulness: Baer, 2003; Hoffman et al., 2010

Research has supported the efficacy of ACT and Mindfulness for improving and helping with:

  • Life Satisfaction
  • Quality of Life
  • Values-guided Actions
  • Coping Skills
  • Psychological Well-being
  • Long-term weight-loss
  • Positive changes in attitudes and behaviour
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
  • Health and Immunity
  • Productivity and Concentration
  • Stress and Burnout
  • Job Satisfaction
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Cancer Survivors
  • Chronic Pain

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The secret to achieving inner peace lies in understanding our inner core values- those things in our lives that are most important to us- and then seeing that they are reflected in the daily events of our lives.
Hyrum W. Smith

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