It can often feel like long-term life changes are impossible. Our thoughts lead us to become trapped in more immediate concerns. We want to be right in an argument. We want to make sure we look good to others. We want to feel good in each moment. All these small concerns serve as band-aids that provide momentary relief at the expense of addressing larger, more long-term changes. This type of thinking can be destructive in many ways. One such way is that it can lead to addictive behavior.
One way of addressing this thinking is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT.
What is ACT?
ACT is a type of therapy that can be helpful to people suffering from a number of conditions. It helps you reframe how you look at the issues you are dealing with. Rather than trying to “fix” individual thoughts or behaviors, ACT encourages you to look at these thoughts differently and reframe them. Rather than judge, ACT teaches you to accept. Rather than avoid difficult thoughts, ACT encourages you to confront them.
History of ACT
Psychologist Steven Hayes developed ACT in the early 1980s. One of the bases of ACT is the sociolinguistic philosophy of contextualization. This deals with how humans understand the world through language. Put simply, contextualization is the study of how humans use words, body language, and demeanor to understand situations. For instance, someone will speak and act formally around their boss while they will be more casual and relaxed around their friends. How we notice these differences is contextualization.
Working off this philosophy, the idea of Relational Frame Theory (or RFT) was developed. RFT is an analytical theory of human behavior. RFT is a major theory about how humans use language to change how objects relate to each other. We can change something’s value simply by the words we choose to assign to it. This means that things that seem obvious on the surface can change as we age and become members of a society and familiar with that society’s value system. For the purpose of understanding how RFT relates to ACT we can keep it simple. Think of a nickel. Thinking only of physical size, it is larger than a dime. Even a child can see that. However, we know that in terms of value a nickel is actually smaller than a dime. This is because of how we, as a society, have chosen to value these items. This is how we “frame” their “relation” to each other. ACT works by adjusting how we frame our relation to our own thoughts and behaviors. It is a technique that can then be used to alter behavior and create lasting change in ourselves.
How does ACT work?
The idea of reframing our thoughts may be a theory we can understand, but how do we do it? There are six core processes in ACT that allow us to change.
Avoidance. It is a normal human instinct. Avoid the thing you don’t like. This tactic may work when you use it to get out of plans with someone you find annoying, but it has its limits when the things we are trying to avoid are our own thoughts. Anyone who has felt anxiety knows that trying not to feel anxious can just make things worse. Acceptance is meant to take the place of avoidance. Rather than pretending the thought doesn’t exist, face it. See it. Once this is done, other methods can help you respond to the thought in a different way.
Cognitive Defusion is about how you interact with your thoughts. Rather than changing the thought itself, defusion lets you change how you respond to it. This can take away the thought’s power over you. There are many techniques to help with this. One example is to say the thought over and over until the meaning is lost and only the sound remains. Whatever technique works best for you, the idea is to allow you to view the thought for what it is: a thought. It has no greater meaning than what you give to it. It has no power.
Being present is self-explanatory. It is about being in the moment and experiencing what is happening as it is happening. This is easier said than done. We constantly think about things as they happened in the past. We predict and judge what will happen in the future. By being able to focus only on the present we can more easily note and describe what is actually happening. Not what has happened. Not what will happen. This lets us feel that our behavior is flexible. We are not trapped in a cycle of what we once did or what we think we will do. We are here, now. And we can make our own choices.
Self as Context
“I.” It’s only one letter, but for most people, it is extremely loaded. Your entire sense of self is wrapped in that letter: “I.” Self as Context allows us to detach from that big “I.” You have thoughts and experiences, but they are not you. This view of self can help you detach from those elements that you feel are negative and that you want to change. They are things you thought and things you did. They do not define you.
We all know what values are. But are our values truly our own? Or do they come from some outside source? “A good person should want…” “My family thinks…” We need to examine our values so that they are true to ourselves and our goals. They cannot be given or forced. They cannot be based on trying to avoid something, but rather on striving toward something. This will allow us to be more consistent in the choices we make in pursuit of these values.
Committed Action is an idea that is probably familiar to you. It is the movement towards progressively larger goals. It is something we are used to in physical pursuits. First, you run a mile. Next, you go two. And so on. Committed action is the same for your emotional pursuits. You cannot “achieve” a value. However, you can achieve different goals along a path toward that value. Step by step. This forward movement is committed action.
ACT and Addiction
Research shows that ACT can be a useful treatment for someone suffering from addiction. Addictive behavior is often used to dull psychological pain. It is a short-term solution. Like the band-aid solutions discussed earlier, addictive behaviors can provide momentary relief, but in the long run, end up creating even greater problems. ACT can help in three ways:
- Acceptance and Cognitive Defusion work to reframe the thoughts that lead to the addictive behavior. Rather than trying to avoid the thoughts, which is impossible in the long-term, ACT shows you how to confront the thoughts that drive you to your addiction. It then provides you with methods to take away the thought’s power. Without that power, your response to the thought can change more easily.
- Being Present and Self as Context allow you to see your addiction as more manageable. The idea of changing something forever can be overwhelming. You can feel trapped in past behaviors. Future patterns can feel set in stone. By being present, you are able to take each moment as it comes, without being crushed by the weight of your past or your imagined future. Self as Context also allows you to stop tying your addiction into your vision of yourself. It is not you. Once you are able to see this, the path to change becomes clearer.
- Values and Committed Action are the most similar to other forms of behavioral therapy and they can help you set a plan and make incremental progress. By focusing on values, you can ensure that you are on the path you want to be on. If your values come from an urge to appease loved ones or better fit into societal norms, they will not be sustainable. You need to find your reasons for wanting to change. Once you have done that, committed action allows you to set goals and reach milestones. This ability to track your progress will help you know you’re moving down the path to recovery.
ACT is not only used for the treatment of addiction. It has many practical uses for a number of mental health issues. That said, it can be a helpful tool for people suffering from addiction. By changing how you relate to your thoughts, ACT can help you break patterns that feel unbreakable. It can help free you from cycles you feel trapped in. It can reframe your issues into things that can be managed without resorting to addictive behavior. It is just one of many techniques that may be helpful to an addict. Each person is different and has to find what works for them, but ACT can be a powerful tool for those who can benefit from a new way of relating to their thoughts.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy at NuView Treatment Center
NuView Treatment Center, an outpatient rehab located in West Los Angeles, is the city’s preeminent treatment center for addiction and mental health conditions. At NuView Treatment Center, clients take part in a variety of evidence-based therapeutic modalities, including acceptance and commitment therapies. Our master’s-level clinicians and on-site physicians ensure that clients’ needs are addressed at all levels of care.
Our programs include:
- Partial hospitalization programs (PHPs)
- Intensive outpatient programs (IOPs)
- Outpatient programs (OPs)
- Aftercare planning services
No matter where you are on your recovery journey, you can expect compassionate care from our team at NuView Treatment Center. Our staff members work to provide each client with an individualized treatment plan as soon as possible so that their unique needs are addressed. Recovery is never pursued via a one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, our clinicians make use of an array of evidence-based therapies to help clients develop new skills, coping tools, and work toward their goals.
Long-term recovery is possible. Contact NuView Treatment Center today for a free and confidential consultation.