acceptance and commitment therapy

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: “Is This Thought Helpful?”

Originally published on August 29, 2022

Let’s Finally Examine Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

Throughout my books and blogs, I’ve covered a wide array of strategies and frameworks for dealing with anxiety and depression. For example, on the latter front, I’ve talked about Cognitive Therapy, Behavioral Therapy, and their lovechild, Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

All of these frameworks equip us (and our clinicians) to meet our struggles head-on and view them in new, more empowering fashions. For instance, CBT stresses the importance of zooming out, analyzing our thoughts (metacognition), and discovering the connection between what we think, what we believe, and how we feel.

Though I’ve yet to talk about it in my writings, there’s another form of therapy I’d now like to present — one closely related to CBT: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (or “ACT” for short). In a nutshell, ACT pushes us to stop fighting back against some of our most challenging emotions in an attempt to help us neutralize and move past (or simply live with) them.

Though this is the first time I’ve explicitly referenced Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in my work, it’s not hard to see how its teachings have influenced just about all of my content. For example, in my first book, I suggested that fighting back against anxiety typically only makes our physical and psychological symptoms much worse.

Why is that? Because grappling with fear usually entails tightening up or unleashing even more internal strain and stress. As you can imagine, this strategy is rarely beneficial; if we want to get past angst, we need equanimity more than anything — the opposite of what’s usually unfolding in our minds and bodies when we’re apprehensive.

What’s more, this resistance often serves as an insidious form of denial, and, as the saying goes, the first step to solving a problem is to recognize (or admit) that you have it. Thus, until we leverage ACT’s primary teaching (acceptance), we’ll be far from the metaphorical negotiation table, struggling in a seemingly never-ending war with fear.

Committing to ACT and Change

ACT isn’t just about accepting that we have issues or demons, though; it also stresses the importance of commitment. But what kind of commitment, exactly? Good question. Specifically, the pledge that we’ll figure out which thought patterns, actions, or behaviors we need to adopt (or stop engaging in) to improve our lots in life.

While there are countless ones we could pick up — physical or mental — one of my favorites comes in the form of following another practice that Acceptance and Commitment Therapy advocates. Specifically, it’s to become more mindful, to look at each of our thoughts and ask ourselves, “Is what I’m contemplating right now helpful?”

Moreover, ACT dictates that when we answer “no” to that question, we should drop our current focus and move on to something else. But that’s far easier said than done. In fact, that’s one of the main critiques of the practice in general. It’s also why you might see folks reciting its teachings, stating, “Why would you think about something that isn’t helpful or doesn’t feel good? That doesn’t make any sense!” while onlookers shoot back, “Of course, it doesn’t. But you’re missing the point!”

On the surface, the first theoretical quote above is 100% correct. However, we’re dancing in the realm of the mind here, where logic doesn’t always win out, and irrationality frequently rules the day. Or, in other, more relevant terms to the subject at hand: fear tends to grip us and beg for our attention, and, being the problem solvers we are, we often oblige, even though such a strategy rarely serves us or boosts our mood.

Thus, what sounds evident in theory isn’t always such in reality. But, with the proper perspective, we can make it look that way, or at least close to it. And that’s why, in the final section of this post, we’ll cover the missing piece to our new, help-oriented equation: a belief that obstructs us from enacting this ACT-inspired line of thinking.

Not All Thoughts Deserve Attention

Below the surface of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy’s “Is this helpful?” inquiry is an implicit assertion we sometimes miss when we learn about this form of treatment. That affirmation is the notion that we don’t have to entertain every thought that enters our minds (and that applies regardless of whether said thought is true).

There’s just one problem with that quiet assertion, however: many of us unknowingly oppose it by believing that each idea that infiltrates our psyches has a specific purpose or is trying to tell us something important. As such, we chew over scary and unsettling thoughts to almost no end, sending ourselves into psychological oblivion.

Worse yet, those of us who subscribe to such a notion tend to engage in its corresponding bad habits for years. That is, until one day, after enduring endless amounts of distress, we realize they no longer serve us. 

Without question, it would be better not to have to wade through that pain and difficulty. Still, I think there’s a related silver lining in it: our perseverance shows us we’re ready for the challenge ACT presents us. Here’s what I mean by that.

Getting to game-changing anxiety and depression breakthroughs like the above is extremely difficult. That’s one of the reasons Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is called ACT, after all, and not something like, say, ABT. We can “accept” all we want, but without total dedication, we won’t progress as quickly or easily on our mental health journeys.

That’s why, once we’ve discovered strategies and frameworks that work for us and cleared out the hurdles standing in our way of adopting them — such as the thought-oriented one we discussed a moment ago — we must integrate them into our daily routines and leverage them as best we can.

And while achieving such a feat is undoubtedly challenging, we must resolve to get there anyway. Otherwise, we’ll be selling ourselves and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy short. For only after we do so (by applying the insights we covered in this post) can we permit ourselves to detach from the inner workings of our psyches, become truly mindful, and answer our new framework’s most important question in a grounded fashion.

Of course, getting to that place won’t be simple or easy either, but it’ll be worth it. For, from that place of groundedness, we can finally take back the reins and prevent our minds from endlessly wandering toward fear and angst. We just have to commit to the process.

Enjoy Reading This Post? Then Check Out Some of Our Previous Ones

Memory Pointers: How Our Brains Trick Us Into Even More Anxiety

Perspective for When Your Mental Health Toolkit Isn’t Enough

**Above image designed and owned by Brian Sachetta ©2022

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