Psychological Inflexibility: An ACT View of Suffering
The core conception of ACT is that psychological suffering is usually caused by the interface between human language and cognition, and the control of human behavior by direct experience. Psychological inflexibility is argued to emerge from experiential avoidance, cognitive entanglement, attachment of a conceptualized self, loss of contact with the present, and the resulting failure to take needed behavioral steps in accord with core values. Buttressed by an extensive basic research program on a associated theory of language and cognition, Relational Frame Theory (RFT), ACT takes the view that trying to change difficult thoughts and feelings as a means of coping can be counter productive, but new, powerful alternatives are available, including acceptance, mindfulness, cognitive defusion, values, and committed action.
The ACT Model
ACT is an orientation to psychotherapy that is based on functional contextualism as a philosophy and RFT as a theory. As such, it is not a specific set of techniques. ACT protocols target the processes of language that are hypothesized to be involved in psychopathology and its amelioration, such as:
- cognitive fusion -- the domination of stimulus functions based on literal language even when that process is harmful,
- experiential avoidance -- the phenomenon that occurs when a person is unwilling to remain in contact with particular private experiences and takes steps to alter the form or frequency of these events and the contexts that occasion them, even when doing so causes psychological harm
- the domination of a conceptualized self over the "self as context" that emerges from perspective taking and deictic relational frames
- lack of values, confusion of goals with values, and other values problems that can underly the failure to build broad and flexible repertoires
- inability to build larger unit of behavior through commitment to behavior that moves in the direction of chosen values
and other such processes. Technologically, ACT uses both traditional behavior therapy techniques (defined broadly to include everything from cognitive therapy to behavior analysis), as well as others that are more recent or that have largely emerged from outside the behavior tradition, such as cognitive defusion, acceptance, mindfulness, values, and commitment methods.
Research seems to be showing that these methods are beneficial for a broad range of clients. ACT teaches clients and therapists alike how to alter the way difficult private experiences function mentally rather than having to eliminate them from occurring at all. This empowering message has been shown to help clients cope with a wide variety of clinical problems, including depression, anxiety, stress, substance abuse, and even psychotic symptoms. The benefits are as important for the clinician as they are for clients. ACT has been shown empirically to quickly alleviate therapist burn-out. In addition, we are learning that these same processes help us understand and change a variety of other behavioral problems, including such areas as human prejudice, work performance, or the inability to learn new things.
How Do You Learn and Apply ACT to Your Practice?
The list of resources below are a great, easy-to-access way to learn more about ACT, it's theoretical and philosophical background. We recommend checking out these pages, as they will provide an important foundation of knowledge. We've also compiled a list of ways to learn about ACT by reading ACT books, as well as getting consultation from others as you begin to apply the work to your practice. This additional list of resources will help you do so as well.