The radical notion behind ACT is that therapy should not be primarily about reducing symptoms (like depression) but rather increasing our ability to have a valued life (a life that is based on our deepest values) even though we have symptoms.
And, by the way, by doing that, it turns out that symptoms tend to diminish.
Of course, this is a central tenant of mindfulness, which we have talked about a great deal on this site: the idea that awareness of our thoughts and feelings, accompanied by some detachment from them (I am not just my thoughts) leads to a change in our experience of pain, depression, anxiety, etcetera.
Here is a description of the six central principles of ACT, from the well written book by Russ Harris, ACT Made Simple, written for therapists but a good resource for anyone interested in these ideas):
- Contacting the Present Moment (be here now). Bringing the focus of our awareness to what is happening right now. Hearing the sounds around us, experiencing the sensations, seeing what is here in front of us, instead of being caught up in our thoughts or worries.
- Defusion (watch your thinking). Being aware that the thoughts we have are not the same as who we are. Knowing that thoughts can, at times, not be “true” in the sense that they may not be relevant to the current situation we are facing. “We hold them lightly rather than clutching them.”
- Acceptance (open up). Making room for painful feelings. No longer struggling with them (I don’t want to have this pain, or sadness) because the struggle with them can make them more powerful (I have to get rid of this or I am not going to be OK). “This doesn’t mean liking them, it just means making room for them.”
- Self as Context (pure awareness). Recognizing that there is a self that is always thinking and planning and creating fantasies or fears, and a self that observes all of this. Knowing that this observing self is always there and strengthening our relationship with it allows us to accept painful thoughts and feelings without being overwhelmed by them.
- Values (know what matters). Connecting with the deepest values that we have. What is important to us? What do we want life to be about?
- Committed Action (do what it takes). Taking effective action, based on our values, and without getting stuck in the traps of thought that can sabotage such action (“I’ll never be able to do that”).
Here are some resources that may be useful –
Contacting the Present Moment – The Power of Now, by Eckhart Toll. Our own page on Mindfulness has more resources.
Defusion – The Reality Slap by Russ Harris is an engaging way of reading about and thinking about a different relationship with our thoughts and fears.
Self as Context – George Herbert Mead got us interested in this topic a long time ago. His book, Self and Society, is still a classic in social psychology. Although probably overkill for our purposes. You Can’t Fool Yourself is a page that is relevant to the topic, although takes a slightly different approach.
Values -First Things First by Steven Covey is a values based approach to time management. Values Clarification by Sidney Simon is a workbook to identify your deepest values. What Color is Your Parachute has as its focus the notion that your work should be based on your values (“finding your mission”).
Committed Action – As Russ Harris points out, this really about all the strategies that we can use to be effective in acting. So it can encompass all of the techniques of behavioral therapy. A fun book on the subject is called How to Change Things When Change is Hard.