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What is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy?

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a type of mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapy. ACT gets its name from one of its core messages: accept what is out of your personal control and commit to action that improves and enriches your life.

The aim of ACT is to maximise human potential for a rich, full and meaningful life. ACT (which is pronounced as the word ‘act’, not as the initials ‘A.C.T.’) does this by helping you to:

  • a) develop psychological skills to deal more effectively with difficult thoughts and feelings; learn new ways of handling them that will reduce their impact and influence over you;
  • b) clarify your values (your deepest desires for how you want to behave as a human being; how you want to treat yourself, others and the world around you). You then use these values to guide, inspire and motivate yourself to take action: to do what matters, face your fears, live meaningfully, act effectively, solve problems, and basically do things to change your life for the better;
  • c) focus your attention on what is important and engage fully in whatever you are doing.

– Definition by Russ Harris author of the Happiness Trap –

So how does Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) work? ACT utilizes a mixture of metaphors, experiential exercises, and mindfulness practice to begin seeing our reality for what it is. If how you’re thinking about the problem is actually THE problem, more thinking about it ain’t going to fix it. It’s like if you’re trying to put two pieces of wood together and all you have is a saw. Your boards are going to keep getting shorter and shorter and you’ll get more and more frustrated as you try to find creative ways to saw faster, better, and at different angles even as the sawdust coats your protective lenses and the wood disappears from before your very eyes.

ACT does not focus on reducing symptoms such as anxiety, depression, or pornography viewing. What? How can a treatment that doesn’t focus on controlling symptoms lead to such a drastic reduction of symptoms? That’s an excellent question, I’m glad you asked! ACT focuses more on living your life in the present moment consistent with what you value most.

Approaching unwanted pornography viewing using an addictions approach is like spraying MiracleGro on weeds hoping it will poison them. ACT attempts to steer us away from the traditional way our mind solves problems. Instead, it helps us slow down, get out of our mental ruts, and examine whether or not our attempts are actually working. For example, if we take a step back, avoiding everything that makes us anxious really limits all of the cool things we want to do in this world, and in the end, we’re still anxious. That strategy just doesn’t work. But that’s what our mind keeps telling us to do.

Most of us get stuck when we feel like we have to get rid of social anxiety, stop feeling depressed, or banish sexual urges forever before we can get on with the business of living. We postpone going to parties, attending school, dating, going to church, all because we have to “fix” something first before we can live our life. ACT challenges this approach and invites the opposite. Maybe by living our life now, the things we struggle with, might, well, take care of themselves, or just come along for the ride.

Instead of avoiding that awesome party this weekend because we’re “socially anxious”, maybe we invite our “social anxiety” to come along while we have a good time. Instead of missing our morning class because we feel “too depressed” to get out of bed, maybe there’s room in the seat next to us for your “depression” in that Abnormal Psychology class you’ve been looking so forward to all semester. Instead of not dating because you are a “porn addict”, maybe by dating you’ll feel more connection to others and have less need to click on that same porn website for the fourth time that day. You might find out that the more you begin doing the things that are truly important to you, the less you’ll feel anxious, depressed, or even view pornography.

If you’re like me, and want an even more comprehensive introduction to ACT with all the nitty gritty details, I would recommend reading this short article by Russell Harris, Embracing Your Demons: an Overview of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.

Here is one of my favorite ACT concepts known as the Choice Point.

Many of the Life After Series services, programs, and resources are based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). This approach has extensive research support for addressing a wide range of mental health problems including depression, anxiety, trauma, and compulsive behaviors. There have been over 800 randomized controlled trials demonstrating the positive effects of ACT. There are also dozens of research studies finding strong support for online ACT self-help programs.

The following research articles include specific findings on ACT as an effective treatment for unwanted pornography viewing as well as key research findings about problematic pornography viewing:

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Problematic Internet Pornography Use: A Randomized Trial (2016)

  • Individuals were able to reduce their viewing of pornography on average over 90% after 12 sessions of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy as a Treatment for Problematic Internet Pornography Viewing (2010)

  • First pilot study showing Acceptance and Commitment Therapy as an effective treatment for unwanted pornography viewing.

Examining the Feasibility of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Self-Help for Problematic Pornography Viewing: Results From a Pilot Open Trial (2017)

  • Individuals reading a general Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) self-help book was effective at reducing unwanted pornography viewing.

Sexual Addiction 25 Years On: A Systematic and Methodological Review of Empirical Literature and an Agenda for Future Research (2010)

  • Most recent and comprehensive review of research on “sexual addiction” or compulsive sexual behaviors over the last 25 years. Highlights Acceptance and Commitment Therapy as one of the few treatments with research support.