Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), a third-wave therapy, stands as a highly effective approach for the treatment of generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), offering people a path towards cultivating a more adaptable and harmonious relationship with their anxiety.
At its core, ACT is grounded in a profound understanding: that psychological suffering is an inherent aspect of the human experience, and we all struggle with it in various forms. Within this framework, ACT acknowledges that while anxiety is a natural part of life, certain behaviours can inadvertently deepen our anguish, creating additional layers of suffering. These behaviours, often employed to escape or alleviate the anxiety or distressing thoughts, unintentionally compound our anguish.
In contrast to attempting to alter thoughts or emotions directly, ACT adopts a different strategy. It aims to facilitate self-awareness in individuals, helping them recognize moments when they instinctively seek to evade or suppress their feelings and thoughts—whether consciously or unconsciously. ACT’s focus lies in encouraging a transformative shift in how someone relates to these internal experiences. It advocates acceptance, allowing these emotions and thoughts to come and go without judgment or resistance.
For a comprehensive understanding of ACT, please feel free to explore our general information on this therapeutic approach by clicking here. However, in this post, we’ll delve deeper into the intricacies of how ACT operates, focusing specifically on its application in addressing the complexities of generalised anxiety disorder (GAD).
How ACT works for anxiety
Central to the ACT model are six foundational components, working in unison to equip individuals with invaluable tools for attaining mental clarity, emotional resilience, and a life harmoniously aligned with their core values. Here is how each of these components works for generalised anxiety:
Identifying one’s core values plays a pivotal role in ACT for anxiety, as it can help clients navigate their thoughts and worries. Amid anxiety’s overwhelming grip, having a clear guide or compass in the form of values can be essential, leading the way when the mind becomes clouded and it’s challenging to think clearly.
When GAD takes hold, it often bombards individuals with a barrage of intrusive and distressing thoughts. These thoughts can swirl chaotically, making it difficult to discern the right course of action. Here, values step in as a guiding force. By reflecting on the type of person one aspires to be and the life one wishes to create, individuals gain clarity and direction even when anxiety tries to obscure their path. Clients begin to understand that expending energy on thoughts that do not serve their values (in ACT terms, unworkable thoughts) or contribute to the life they desire is counterproductive. This realisation empowers them to redirect their mental energy towards actions that align with their values and cultivate personal growth. Values serve as a constant reminder of what truly matters.
Commitment to values-based actions
Having a clear understanding of your values is undoubtedly an essential initial step, but it alone isn’t sufficient in the pursuit of crafting the life you desire. The true essence of progress lies in committed action, the practice of translating those values into tangible actions, even in the face of anxiety’s relentless presence.
Committed action represents a conscious choice to make decisions aligned with what holds the most significance in your life, rather than succumbing to avoidance driven by anxiety and fear. This process involves setting short-term, medium-term, and long-term goals that reflect your deeply held values, essentially transforming them from abstract concepts into actionable steps. For instance, if kindness stands as one of your core values, you might establish the goal of sharing a smile with three strangers on the street every day. By committing to this goal, you actively embody kindness in your daily life, evolving into the compassionate person you aspire to be.
At the heart of ACT is a foundational belief: life may not always be a continuous stream of happiness, but it can perpetually hold meaning, richness, and purpose when we choose to align our actions with our values, with what truly matters to us. ACT serves as a guiding light, teaching individuals to act according to their values.
In essence, ACT empowers individuals to understand that life’s challenges, including anxiety, need not hinder the pursuit of a meaningful and purposeful existence. Through committed action, people can actively shape their lives in line with their deepest aspirations and values.
Defusion techniques are valuable tools that assist people with generalised anxiety in creating space between themselves and their worrisome thoughts. Instead of becoming entangled in anxious rumination, they learn to perceive thoughts as mental events, understanding that they may not always accurately represent reality. This skill enables clients to take a step back, permitting their thoughts to flow in and out of their awareness without becoming overly influenced by them.
Mindfulness and presence
Many of us, including those with anxiety, tend to spend a significant portion of our lives ruminating on the future or dwelling on the past. Frequently, these thoughts offer little in terms of constructive progress toward the life one desires or the values one seeks to uphold. An alternative path emerges, one rooted in the present moment, focusing on the here and now. However, this choice is not a simple one to embrace; it necessitates practice, and this is where mindfulness becomes a valuable ally.
Mindfulness serves as a cornerstone of ACT for anxiety, providing you with the tools to reside in the present moment. It entails the practice of observing one’s anxious thoughts and feelings without judgement, fostering a state of awareness. Through this mindfulness practice and the help of defusion tools, you cultivate the ability to detach from their anxious thoughts, creating a spacious mental arena for understanding them.
It is crucial to note that ACT does not seek to eradicate anxiety or worries. Instead, it offers a shift in perspective, teaching you how to allow these feelings and thoughts to exist without attempting to eliminate them. Rather than letting anxiety dominate our attention, you learn to relegate it to the background, enabling you to focus on the richness of the present moment.
Acceptance of emotions
Acceptance and commitment therapy offers a unique perspective on our relationship with anxiety, challenging the prevailing narrative that happiness should be our constant state of being and that we must exert full control over our emotions. In a society that often champions happiness as the ultimate goal and encourages the suppression or elimination of unpleasant feelings, ACT introduces a different paradigm.
Its foundational premise is rooted in the idea that psychological distress, including anxiety and fear, is an intrinsic aspect of the human condition. These emotions are not defects or failures but rather natural byproducts of the intricate workings of our brains and the complexities of life itself. In this context, ACt deviates from the norm by advocating for the acceptance of these emotions rather than futile attempts to control or eradicate them.
Its wisdom lies in illustrating the costs and futility of perpetually striving to manipulate our anxiety. It invites individuals to recognize that, while discomfort and distress are undeniable parts of life, they need not define our existence. Instead, by embracing anxiety, we can learn to coexist with it, acknowledging its presence without judgement.
In this way, ACT guides us towards a path of greater emotional freedom, resilience, and authenticity. It encourages us to lead lives that are not solely defined by the pursuit of constant happiness but are enriched by the full spectrum of human emotions, ultimately leading to a deeper and more meaningful existence.
In ACT, we talk about having two ‘you’s inside your head: one does the thinking, and the other watches those thoughts like a spectator at a game. This therapeutic approach provides individuals with the tools to step into the role of the observer of their thoughts, fostering heightened self-awareness and diminishing the influence of the mind’s ceaseless activity. This shift in perspective is particularly beneficial for generalised anxiety as it reduces the impact of worries and rumination.