The ACT framework takes the view that suffering is not caused by thoughts or feelings but rather from attempts to avoid them or by being consumed by them.
ACT incorporates acceptance strategies, mindfulness techniques and cognitive and behavioural approaches to help you change your relationship with distressing thoughts and feelings so that they hold less power over you.
Perhaps you are suffering from social anxiety, avoiding social situations even when you value relationships and connection. Let’s say you are invited to a social gathering and you immediately experience automatic, negative thought, feelings and body sensations. This might include something like:
“I feel scared.”
“Everyone will be looking at me. People will judge me.”
“I can feel my heart pounding and I’m sweating.”
If you were to act according to these thoughts and feelings, you would probably not attend the social outing. While in the short term this might make you feel safer, long term you would not make progress towards important values of connection and relationship, thereby increasing your sense of isolation. Furthermore, social events would continue to feel scary and these repeated experiences of avoidance would become increasingly difficult to tolerate.
Alternatively, if utilising an ACT perspective, you could work towards accepting that social events are something that naturally causes some anxiety and you would be supported to build skills to manage the distressing thoughts and feelings that arise as you engage in these activities. One of the ACT skills you would practice is called “cognitive defusion”. This skill would create some distance from your thoughts.
Many times when we experience a thought, it’s not recognised as a “thought” but rather a “truth” which we give importance and attention to.
Let’s take for example, the thought from earlier: “People will judge me”. Here are some cognitive defusion strategies that will help give the thought less power.
- Put the words “I notice I’m having the thought that…” in front of it. The statement “I notice I’m having the thought that people will judge me” is less daunting than the thought “People will judge me”.
- Turn your feared thought into a song or say it in a funny accent. Applying humour to the thought often helps reduce its power.
- Think of your thought as just an annoying song on the radio you have to wait out. You’ve been able to tolerate many annoying songs on the radio before and you can do the same with this thought.
Practicing these strategies can help change your relationship to distressing thoughts so that they have less control over you. In this way ACT supports your ability to live with increased alignment to important values. In this example, the socially anxious individual could begin attending social events to increase connection and the opportunity for meaningful relationships.