Exploring Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Part 1: Understanding Psychological Flexibility

For many if not most people, therapy is “therapy.” Consequently, an incredible range of therapeutic options and approaches get lumped into one broad category. In reality, these therapeutic tools are often vastly different and very much deserve individual exploration. For example, Acceptable and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a kindred spirit to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) but involves its own unique nuances and treatment focus.

What is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy?

Hardships are inevitable in everyone’s life. ACT asks us to aim a lens of mindfulness at the tough times and events. But focusing on the present, you may become better able to move forward — no matter how challenging your emotions are. A therapist working with ACT will work with you to create coping mechanisms that can be adapted to many different situations.

One of the many pluses of ACT is how it can be tailored to each client’s individual needs to make it less likely they will dwell on negative feelings. This is accomplished by encouraging and guiding clients to stay in the present moment.

The 3 Steps of ACT

  • Accept and be mindful of an emotion
  • Choose the direction you wish to take
  • Take action to get you moving in that direction

Acceptance teaches you to recognize what is and isn’t within your control. This process can dramatically decrease the stress in your life as you learn to use your focus and energy most effectively.

Choosing a direction is motivation. Once you identify what you can control, you pledge to make that happen.

Taking action is empowerment. Even a single step forward is a powerful move away from feeling stuck or trapped by negative emotions.

What is Psychological Flexibility?

If you notice yourself feeling stiff from long hours at a desk, what might you do? There’s an excellent chance you’d sign up for yoga class or perhaps hire a personal trainer to increase your flexibility. Your body, over time, changes and it greatly benefits both your physical and mental well-being.

This topic is not nearly as well-known, but it is definitely possible to increase one’s psychological flexibility. Just as your body has to adjust for and work against stressors the same goes for your mind. Therefore, the definition of flexibility as it pertains to our emotions is about staying in contact with the present moment — regardless of what you’re enduring.

Flexibility and Acceptance Are Not Surrender

Human beings frequently overestimate what falls within the scope of their control. As much as we’d like to keep some (or all) things steady and reliable, change is the norm. Life is all about novelty. Navigating such an unpredictable world is enough to cause panic in anyone. ACT recognizes this trend and cuts through the disconnect to create workable, immediate possibilities for relief.

To accept the randomness of life does not mean you surrender to it. Psychological flexibility does not exist to guide us into resignation. To bring it back to the physical analogy, flexibility is maintained for the express purpose that you never know what’s going to happen. The pro athlete, the weekend athlete, or anyone attempting to stay healthy will not avoid the challenges. They prepare for them. A big part of that preparation is an acceptance that most decisions will be made at the moment.

Life is unpredictable and, at times, can feel very unfair. It makes demands on you that we couldn’t have seen coming. The coping mechanisms you’ve always relied upon suddenly feel impotent. This is precisely when you need to be flexible. You need to identify what is happening in the present and accept the need to adapt, adjust, and evolve.

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