Acceptance and commitment therapy brings a fresh and invigorating perspective to the landscape of social anxiety treatment. Abbreviated as ACT, this contemporary approach was developed from traditional cognitive-behavioural therapy and enhanced with mindfulness and acceptance strategies. At its core, it empowers people with social anxiety to accept their thoughts and feelings while taking committed actions in alignment with their values.
ACT encourages people to accept and be compassionate towards their inner experiences. It recognizes that discomfort, anxiety, and self-doubt are natural parts of the human condition, especially when facing challenging situations like social interactions.
This therapy approach focuses on six core processes, often represented by the acronym “hexaflex,” which provide a roadmap for psychological flexibility:
Defusion is a central concept in this approach, which involves distancing oneself from unworkable (unhelpful) thoughts and beliefs. Instead of getting entangled in self-critical or anxious thinking, individuals learn to observe their thoughts without judgement, reducing their impact on behaviour and emotions.
Think about someone with social anxiety who has been invited to a networking event. As the event date approaches, she finds herself overwhelmed by anxious thoughts like, “I’ll embarrass myself,” “No one will want to talk to me,” and “I’ll ruin my chances for future opportunities.”
Acceptance and commitment therapy helps by teaching her how to recognise these thoughts and separate from them. Through a variety of techniques, this person can take a step back, enabling her to observe these thoughts from a more detached perspective, rather than becoming ensnared in their grip. This distance serves to significantly diminish the influence of these thoughts, ultimately granting her the capacity to direct her attention towards what truly matters, rather than being disproportionately affected by her thoughts. The thoughts and anxiety might still be there, but using ACT methods, she can let those be in the background while she does what is important to her, connecting to other professionals.
At the heart of its philosophy is acceptance of what is, including thoughts and emotions. Instead of viewing anxiety as a burdensome adversary to be eradicated, acceptance and commitment therapy encourages individuals to embrace it as a natural part of the human experience. This shift in perspective is transformative, as it allows individuals to acknowledge their anxiety without judgement or self-condemnation. The anxiety stemming from a social event may persist, but the extra layers of distress generated by resisting or rejecting this anxiety gradually fade away. Embracing and acknowledging this initial anxiety fundamentally shifts one’s attitude and expectations when participating in social events.
Imagine someone with social anxiety who frequently experiences intense anxiety before attending social events. In the context of ACT, they would be guided to acknowledge that their anxiety is a common response to challenging situations, rather than a personal failing. This newfound acceptance acts as a potent anchor, firmly rooting individuals in recognising that anxiety is not an adversary to be fought. Instead, it underscores the importance of acknowledging and understanding anxiety as a natural part of the human experience.
Acceptance and commitment therapy teaches clients to expand their awareness and explore their inner experiences with curiosity. This process helps them gain a deeper understanding of their thoughts and emotions, fostering self-awareness and self-compassion.
Furthermore, social anxiety often involves worrying about future social interactions. People with this problem may catastrophize and imagine the worst possible outcomes. Mindfulness encourages them to shift their attention away from these future-based worries and instead focus on the present moment. By being fully engaged in the “here and now,” they can engage better in the social situation.
The observer self or self-as-context
The observer represents the aspect of a person’s consciousness that can step back and observe thoughts, emotions, and sensations without getting entangled in them. When applied to social anxiety, the observer self can provide valuable insights and strategies for managing and overcoming this condition.
Social anxiety can trigger intense emotional reactions, such as fear, shame, or embarrassment. The observer self allows people to observe these emotions without immediate reactivity.
Moreover, while self-criticism is a common feature of social anxiety, the observer self allows individuals to disidentify from this critical voice. Rather than internalising self-criticism as a personal truth, they can observe it as just another thought passing through their mind. This disidentification can lead to improved self-compassion and reduced self-judgement.
Values and committed action
The fifth and sixth elements of the hexaflex are values and committed action. ACT inspires people to live in alignment with their values despite the presence of anxiety. In essence, it teaches them that they can choose to take actions(committed action) that matter to them and be the type of person they want to be, even in the face of any unpleasant emotion or thought.
Consider a person who values meaningful social connections but often avoids social events due to social anxiety. ACT would encourage them to embrace their values, recognizing the importance of social connections in their life. By doing so, they can make a conscious choice to attend social gatherings, fully aware that anxiety might accompany them.
The beauty of this lies in its ability to break the chains of avoidance that often characterise social anxiety. It motivates people to take courageous steps towards the life they want to lead. Through this process, individuals cultivate resilience and strength, transcending the limitations of anxiety to embrace a life filled with authenticity and purpose.
All these components work synergistically to foster an attitude characterised by acceptance, presence, and detachment from unproductive or distressing thoughts and emotions. When individuals expend less energy on evading or suppressing these feelings and thoughts, they free up more energy to invest in actions that resonate with their core values and their envisioned life path.