What Is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)?

March 1, 2024

Seeking tools for handling stress, anxiety, or feelings of being stuck? Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) offers a path forward. This evidence-based technique equips you with practical skills to accept your thoughts and emotions, commit to meaningful actions, and cultivate a life aligned with your values. Learn how ACT can effectively increase mental flexibility, manage psychological distress, and foster lifelong resilience.

Key Takeaways

  • ACT is a therapeutic approach aimed at increasing psychological flexibility by having patients accept their emotions and take actions aligned with their core values, enhancing overall mental health and well-being.
  • The therapy can include various stages and techniques such as the ‘Values Bull’s Eye’ and ‘Sailing Boat Metaphor’ exercises, cognitive defusion, mindfulness practices, and committed actions towards personal values.
  • ACT has been shown to be effective in helping to improve a range of mental health conditions including anxiety, depression, addiction, and psychosis, by equipping individuals with the skills to deal with emotional and physical distress in a healthy manner.

What Is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)?

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a remarkable therapeutic approach employed by mental health professionals worldwide. Its focus is on enhancing psychological flexibility, a crucial skill that allows individuals to fully engage with the present moment, acknowledging and embracing their thoughts and emotions, and align their actions with their fundamental values.  Psychological flexibility means being able to adjust your actions to meet important goals, helping you navigate life's challenges more effectively.

You might be wondering how ACT assists in dealing with difficult thoughts and feelings. The approach is rooted in contextual behavioral science, which promotes the direct embrace of personal experiences, discouraging reliance on avoidance or suppression. Through targeted questions and exercises, individuals are guided to accept difficult emotions and take actions that align with their core values. This acceptance and commitment lead to a positive shift in their relationship with internal struggles, instilling hope, and resilience.

ACT’s framework stands out with its transformative stages that promote psychological development. Let’s explore this therapy’s structure and how the therapists at Resilience Lab can assist individuals in need.

The ACT Stages & Framework

 In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), the partnership between the therapist and the client plays a key role. This relationship, where both work together towards healing, is different from traditional therapies that often position the therapist as the 'expert'. In ACT, this collaborative approach helps clients actively participate in their own therapy process. The therapist is not required to be an enlightened being or have everything figured out. Instead, they prioritize:

  • Compassion
  • Acceptance
  • Empathy
  • Respect
  • The ability to remain psychologically present with the client

A key exercise that is often employed in ACT is the ‘Values Bull’s Eye.’ It assists clients in clarifying their personal values by placing an ‘X’ on a set of concentric circles representing different life areas, such as:

  • Work/education
  • Leisure
  • Personal growth/health
  • Relationships

This exercise, along with the incorporation of mindfulness techniques, aligns with the primary ACT aims of fostering psychological flexibility and value-based living.

The Goal of ACT

Fundamentally, ACT aims to help individuals live a meaningful life. It emphasizes:

  • Accepting one’s emotions rather than attempting to eliminate them.
  • Being mindful of life’s experiences.
  • Engaging in ‘valued behavior’ despite challenging emotions.

A key tool used in ACT is the ‘Sailing Boat Metaphor.’ This metaphor demonstrates how values and committed actions assist in establishing direction and staying on track towards one’s objectives, even in the face of inevitable challenges or emotional distress. These components are crucial in ACT as they provide guidance for individuals to lead purposeful lives.

The Benefits of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

Beyond being a form of therapy, ACT serves as a guide to a happier, more fulfilled life. It enhances mental health, particularly in cases of chronic pain, by assisting individuals in altering their psychological reaction to stress and pain symptoms, even if it does not directly decrease the sensation of pain.

ACT offers hope by helping individuals, including those facing challenging circumstances like cancer, to accept their situation and discover deeper meaning in life, even in the face of persistent pain. It provides tools and strategies for managing difficult emotions and experiences, showing how acceptance can lead to a more fulfilling life despite adversity.

Improve Mental Health & Happiness

One significant advantage of ACT is its positive effect on mental health. ACT promotes psychological flexibility, which in turn bolsters mental health and fosters overall well-being. By accepting and being mindful of their thoughts and emotions, individuals can:

  • Live in the present moment more fully.
  • Reduce feelings of stress and anxiety.
  • Improve their ability to cope with difficult emotions.
  • Enhance their overall well-being and satisfaction with life.

Acknowledges Negative Experiences In Life

Another noteworthy feature of ACT is its recognition of negative experiences. It enables individuals to:

  • Accept and permit the presence of these negative thoughts and emotions without attempting to alter or evade them.
  • Embrace the discomfort and learn to live with it.
  • Develop a more flexible and adaptive response to negative experiences.
  • Cultivate psychological resilience and improve overall well-being.

This acceptance has the potential to contribute to improved psychological health, overall well-being, and recognizing mental health symptoms. 

ACT facilitates acceptance of negative experiences by guiding individuals to prioritize healing over fixating on the negative. It promotes recognition and embrace of negative emotions and experiences as integral aspects of life. This approach can help a person navigate challenging emotions, and pursue meaningful life goals and paths.

Provides The Tools Necessary To Grow

ACT is more than just a form of therapy; it's a comprehensive approach that provides individuals with the skills and techniques needed to navigate emotional and physical distress. It guides people to live in harmony with their core values, fostering personal growth and resilience.

Some of the techniques used in ACT for personal growth include:

  • Anchor Breathing
  • Cognitive defusion from unhelpful thoughts
  • The struggle switch
  • Acceptance and willingness
  • Values clarification
  • Committed action

By promoting psychological flexibility, these techniques lead to an improved quality of life and personal development.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Techniques

ACT techniques are diverse, yet all aim toward a common goal: fostering psychological flexibility. From identifying values, committing to actions aligned with personal values, to embracing emotional discomfort, ACT provides a roadmap to a fulfilling life.

Although the exact techniques and style that your therapist uses will likely vary based on your individual circumstances, there are a handful of techniques that are common for ACT. Let’s examine some of these techniques more closely. These simple yet powerful tools can bring about remarkable changes in an individual’s life.

Identifying Values

As a crucial component of ACT, values identification is essential. Values serve as the guiding principles that direct individuals toward meaningful goals. They establish the foundational framework of the therapeutic process, with the aim of enabling specific behavioral changes for a more vital and meaningful existence.

In ACT, values are considered as the principles that provide guidance for desired actions, distinct from goals. They signify chosen life directions that give meaning to one’s actions, which is essential for living a fulfilling life.

Committed Action Towards Personal Values

Another cornerstone of ACT is committed action. It entails taking deliberate steps to pursue goals and align one’s life with personal values. It’s based on the concept that ‘truth’ is determined by effectiveness in moving an individual towards their desired direction.

In ACT, the principle of committed action is implemented by:

  1. Identifying an important area of your life, such as relationships, career, or personal growth to focus on
  2. Discovering the values that are most important to you in that area, like honesty, compassion, or achievement
  3. Taking steps that align with those values, even when faced with obstacles or challenges. These actions are considered 'effective' because they move you closer to living a life that's in line with your values. For example, if you value health, an effective action might be choosing to exercise regularly, despite having a busy schedule

Embracing Emotional Discomfort

In ACT, the role of embracing emotional discomfort is quite significant. It involves acknowledging and accepting negative emotions as an inherent aspect of the human experience, particularly when facing individual adversities.

ACT teaches the acceptance of emotional discomfort through various techniques. It involves:

  • Acknowledging negative feelings without avoidance
  • Embracing discomfort as a part of the therapeutic journey
  • Facilitating the constructive processing of difficult emotions

This acceptance is an integral part of the therapeutic journey when confronting challenges.

What to Expect From Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

If you’re considering ACT, you might wonder what to expect from the process. The journey with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy involves an initial consultation, practicing core ACT principles, and ongoing support and progress evaluation. The therapists at Resilience Lab will provide you with a personalized care approach that works best for your personality and your circumstances.

Let’s examine each of these stages more closely for a comprehensive understanding of ACT.

Initial Conversation and Setting Goals

The initial conversation marks a vital first step in ACT. It’s where you get to know your therapist and vice versa. The objectives of this session in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy are to address the client’s needs, evaluate their history and current issues, and set therapeutic objectives.

The therapist uses various methods to establish a therapeutic relationship during the initial meeting. They employ techniques to build rapport with the client, setting the foundation for a successful and beneficial therapeutic journey.

Core ACT Processes in Practice

With the initial session completed and therapy goals established, the actual therapeutic work commences. The core ACT processes that are typically implemented during therapy sessions include:

  • Acceptance
  • Cognitive defusion
  • Being present
  • Self as context
  • Values
  • Committed action

Each of these processes has its unique characteristics. For instance, mindfulness practice in ACT entails intentionally focusing on the present moment without judgment. Cognitive defusion in ACT is implemented through the utilization of exercises and strategies designed to facilitate clients in mindfully attending to their thoughts.

Ongoing Support and Progress Evaluation

The therapeutic journey with ACT extends beyond the initial treatment phase. Continuous support and progress assessment in ACT are crucial to facilitate sustained benefits and foster development throughout the therapeutic process.

In ACT, clients receive unbiased help as they face mental and life challenges. Evaluating progress in ACT involves measuring how well the therapy is working and tracking the client's improvement over time, using clear and understandable methods. This approach ensures that the therapy adapts to meet the client's evolving needs.

What Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) Can Help With

ACT is not just a form of therapy; it’s a holistic approach that can help with various mental health issues. Some of the conditions that ACT can help with include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Addiction
  • Psychosis

Let’s explore in greater depth each of these conditions and how ACT can be beneficial.


ACT provides individuals with techniques to:

  • Modify their response to anxiety and stress
  • Facilitate the development of a life that encompasses greater social connection and emotional intimacy
  • Live a more gratifying life

Effective ACT techniques for managing anxiety disorders encompass anchor breathing, cognitive defusion from unhelpful thoughts, and acceptance of difficult thoughts and feelings. These techniques, when practiced regularly, can significantly reduce anxiety and stress levels, paving the way for a more peaceful and satisfying life.

Get started with therapy today.

Our team can help you find the right therapist.


ACT provides support for individuals with depression by promoting psychological flexibility, helping them accept themselves and their experiences, and encouraging a lifestyle aligned with their core values.

Based on a 2018 study, 75% of individuals who underwent ACT reported experiencing remission of their depression symptoms and enhancement in their quality of life. This is a testament to the effectiveness of ACT in treating depression and improving one’s overall quality of life.


ACT provides an alternative method for addiction treatment, with a focus on mitigating cravings and withdrawal symptoms. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for addiction employs techniques like:

  • Cognitive Defusion
  • Acceptance
  • Flexible attention to the present moment
  • Self-as-a-context
  • Values
  • Committed actions

These techniques can assist individuals in acknowledging cravings and symptoms without succumbing to them.


Acceptance and Commitment Therapy has been shown to enhance psychological flexibility and improve the quality of life for individuals with psychosis, as evidenced by a randomized controlled trial.

ACT utilizes techniques that:

  • Instruct patients on defusing from challenging thoughts, emotions, and psychotic experiences
  • Involve identifying and prioritizing actions that align with valued goals
  • Enhance one’s capacity to manage psychotic symptoms without directly addressing symptom reduction

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy at Resilience Lab

Resilience Lab therapists specialize in ACT and other types of therapy to provide you with personalized care and measurable outcomes. Our therapists employ mindfulness and acceptance techniques to encourage psychological flexibility and self-acceptance in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.

Moreover, Resilience Lab ensures the affordability of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy by offering a range of accessible payment options.

Frequently Asked Questions

Although every person’s situation is unique, below are a few general answers to the most commonly asked questions about ACT . If you are looking for a more specific answer, then we recommend you schedule a consultation with one of our therapists.

What is an example of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy?

An example of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) involves a technique called "cognitive defusion." This technique helps individuals change the way they interact with their thoughts, particularly distressing ones. Instead of challenging or trying to alter these thoughts as in traditional Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), ACT encourages individuals to observe their thoughts in a detached manner.

For instance, if someone has the thought "I'm not good enough," ACT would guide them to acknowledge the thought as just a string of words without inherent meaning, reducing its impact and influence over their emotions and behaviors.

What is the difference between CBT and ACT?

The primary difference between Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) lies in their approach to handling negative thoughts and emotions. CBT focuses on changing and challenging distorted or irrational thoughts and beliefs, aiming to alter the way these thoughts affect emotions and behaviors.

In contrast, ACT does not aim to alter the content of thoughts but rather works on accepting them as they are and committing to action that aligns with one's values despite these thoughts. ACT emphasizes mindfulness and acceptance strategies, encouraging individuals to observe their thoughts without judgment.

What is the ultimate goal of ACT?

The ultimate goal of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is to increase psychological flexibility. This means helping individuals to become more open to experiencing their thoughts and feelings without undue influence from them, and committing to actions that align with their core values and life goals.

ACT teaches that trying to control or avoid difficult thoughts and feelings can be counterproductive. Instead, by accepting these experiences and committing to value-driven actions, individuals can lead a more fulfilling and meaningful life, even in the presence of psychological distress.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a crisis and needs immediate help, please call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

Clinically Reviewed by Christine Carville, LCSW-R.

Christine Carville, LCSW-R, is the co-founder and Chief Clinical Officer of Resilience Lab. Christine developed the Resilience Methodology, a trans-theoretical training model for therapists to provide individualized, flexible, trauma-informed care. She has also been teaching at the Columbia School of Social Work since 2016 and continues to maintain her own private psychotherapy practice.

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