Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Stress Relief

Accept Your Stress and Move Forward

Woman meditating
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We can't always change the circumstances that cause us stress, and sometimes we can't even influence them. For example, you can't always leave a difficult job or get a raise when finances are tight, and there will always be some difficult people you simply need to deal with.

Some stress simply must be managed, and it can be life-changing when you find strategies that help you deal with stress in a way that minimizes its negative effects.

One of these tools, which is becoming more popular, is acceptance and commitment therapy (ATC). This is a form of counseling that is similar to cognitive-behavior therapy, which has been shown by many studies to be effective with stress management. ACT combines the use of acceptance of stressors in one's life and mindfulness strategies mixed in different ways with commitment and behavior-change strategies that can increase psychological and emotional flexibility.

History of ATC

This approach was originally named "comprehensive distancing" and was founded in 1982 by psychologist Steven C. Hayes. It has since been fleshed out and worked into a more robust approach to change. Now there are several different protocols for ACT that change depending on the situation and type of stress faced, as well as the setting. For example, there is a brief version of ACT called "focused acceptance and commitment therapy," also known as FACT.

The goal of ACT (and FACT) is not to eliminate difficult feelings, but to be present with them and accept them, which can create greater comfort with them so that people are able to move beyond the barriers that these feelings create. Acceptance and commitment therapy invites people to open up to unpleasant feelings and learn not to overreact to them or avoid situations where they are invoked.

Its therapeutic effect is a positive "upward spiral" of emotion where feeling better leads to a better understanding of the truth.

Principles of ACT

ACT commonly employs six core principles to help clients develop psychological flexibility.

  1. Cognitive defusion: Learning methods to reduce the tendency to reify thoughts, images, emotions, and memories.
  2. Acceptance: Allowing thoughts to come and go without struggling with them.
  3. Contact with the present moment: Awareness of the here and now, experienced with openness, interest, and receptiveness.
  4. The observing self: Accessing a transcendent sense of self, a continuity of consciousness which is unchanging.
  5. Values: Discovering what is most important to oneself.
  6. Committed action: Setting goals according to values and carrying them out responsibly.

Correlational evidence has found that absence of psychological flexibility predicts many forms of psychopathology. A 2005 meta-analysis showed that the six ACT principles, on average, account for 16 to 29 percent of the variance in psychopathology (general mental health, depression, anxiety) at baseline, depending on the measure, using correlational methods.

ACT-Based Strategies

Mindfulness and Meditation

Because the main goal of ACT is to accept one's present circumstances, become more comfortable with them, and then be empowered to move beyond them with minimal stress, meditation is an extremely helpful tool for this kind of stress.

The practice of mindfulness and meditation can allow you to practice being aware of stressors and then letting go of the need to react. This can minimize the stress you feel as well as the tendency many of us have to overreact to stress we experience when we feel trapped. This can come in the form of rumination, catastrophizing, and other stress-exacerbating habits that many of us engage in whether we're aware of it or not.

The following are some meditation techniques that can be used for stress relief.

Reappraisal

We can't always change what we experience, but we can change how we think about these experiences.

This is a core belief of ACT.

Changing your thoughts about the stress you experience can come in the form of cognitive restructuring or cognitive reappraisals, where you actively work to choose new ways of viewing the same situation. These views may not be the first thoughts you had on the topic, but they can be just as aligned with the realities of the situation.

For example, when facing a challenge that feels beyond your capabilities (a commonly stressful situation), "I am failing at this," can be changed to, "I am having a difficult time with this. It's all part of the process, though, and I'll get it eventually." Similarly, "This should not be happening to me," can be changed to, "We all face challenges, and here's one of mine. I'll get through this."

Deliberate Acceptance

Sometimes stress can be greatly minimized when we give up the fight and trust the process. When we feel we need to struggle against something that may not necessarily be changeable, we can feel overwhelmed with a virtually impossible task. When we accept a situation and let go of our own need to control it (which often is impossible, anyway), this can feel like lifting a weight off our shoulders and can greatly relieve the stress of whatever situation we face.

"Making friends" with the situations we had been fighting can be a liberating process and, interestingly, can help us to move on from feeling "stuck" and "trapped" into a place of recognizing "what is" and what can be done about it.

Choosing Purposeful Action

A primary goal with ACT is to choose an action that can be taken and to move forward in a positive, productive direction. One strategy that can help with this is to increase the positive experiences you have so that you can create an "upward spiral of positivity." Another is to simply look at the situation you are in (and accept this situation) and then look for options you can choose within this reality rather than trying to change the reality itself by fighting your overall circumstances.

This can be achieved with the help of a therapist, a journaling practice, or talks with a good friend who understands.

A Word From Verywell

Ultimately, ACT-based strategies can be liberating and empowering. Accepting the challenges of life and moving forward can build confidence and inner strength and can help you to move past significant amounts of stress. Practice with this modality can make perfect.

Source: 

Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K. D., & Wilson, K. G. (1999). Acceptance and commitment therapy: An experiential approach to behavior change. New York: Guilford Press.