Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) concepts for daily living

Many people suffer today from stress, anxiety, low mood and other mental health issues.  To help with this there are lots of popular mindfulness exercises available from books, apps or in therapy.

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The core concepts found in acceptance and commitment (ACT), an approach to counselling that comes from the "third wave" of behavioural therapies, draw heavily on these mindfulness concepts and ideas. In this article, I aim to share some of them so you can try them in your daily life.


The causes of our problems 

There might be a clear outward cause of unhappiness. Perhaps we are in a bad relationship, in a job we hate or struggle with the effects of past trauma. Whilst sometimes the causes and solutions to our problems are obvious, often they’re not quite so clear-cut. 
 
From an ACT perspective, the ultimate cause of unhappiness might not be the external situation but rather our tendency to get pulled into negative inner judgement and commentary, also known as rumination. Rumination is that inner process of brooding, the constant re-playing of old tapes of thought and emotion, never really getting to an answer, often when the solution to a problem is not very clear.  

While we spend time ruminating we’re more likely to be low or anxious and less likely to be acting as the person we want to be. If our minds are elsewhere, then we’re perhaps not embracing the moment, and when else can we live life if not now? This comes at a cost to us and those around us.  It’s as if our mind switches into “auto-pilot” mode and we lose something of our true selves for a time.
 
This inner commentary is normal, we all do it to some extent.  You might hear its judgements as you read these words – that’s the voice I’m talking about. However, sometimes we become so immersed in its ruminations that we have “become” the inner voice in the head without realising it.    
 
You may notice a tendency for this voice to focus particularly on past or future, judgements about others or ourselves, our story, our limitations, feelings of shame or guilt, or equally fear and anxiety about the future. As our mind tries to “solve” the problem it endlessly re-plays variations on the same theme(s). Why would the mind do that?  In short, it’s doing its number one task: keeping you safe at all costs. In practice, this can often serve little practical purpose, and from an ACT perspective the mind is not always the best tool to solve emotional problems, in fact, it can make things worse.  
 
One simple and helpful method to find a more peaceful place is the ACT concept of “contacting the present moment”. It's helpful to contact the present moment because, when you pause to consider it, this moment is all we have, or will ever have. So in a sense, to more fully access this moment is to be more fully alive. This goes to the heart of the mindfulness approach, which is essentially about embracing life now, which of course includes taking any positive action we may need to take - when else will you take action if not now?  


There are many ways to practice contacting the present moment, but try these simple yet profound steps drawn from ACT, when you have a moment to yourself.

Step one:

Sit down somewhere quiet or private. Adjust the posture until you’re comfortable, relax the body and take a few breaths. 

Step two:

Begin to observe whatever you are currently experiencing inside.  What is the quality of your thoughts?  Are they calm? agitated? focused? It doesn’t matter what you find, whatever is there just observe and allow it. How about your emotions?  Do you notice any tension or tightness in the head, chest, stomach or elsewhere in the body? What do you feel in the body? Any aches or pains, discomfort, or maybe the feeling of the chair beneath you?

Step three:

Gently bring your awareness to the part of the body you physically feel most, let’s say the feet, often we feel them most. It could equally be the hands or some other area or maybe the whole body, the part isn’t important. An ache or pain you have (assuming it doesn’t need any other attention) might be the part that seeks your attention the most and thus best to work with. Gently explore with the mind, the shape, feelings of warmth or coldness, explore from inside outward, from all sides…What do you feel, maybe warmth, tingling or heaviness? Gently breathe into that part, continue exploring it and visualise the breath entering that part and the connection between them.
 
The mind may well try to pull you into thought and ruminations, when you realise this is happening can you gently return your attention to the part being observed?
Stay with it, and when the mind pulls you away don’t make it into a fight, just gently direct the attention back to the object of your observation. We don’t want to “fight” the mind because that will turn the process into a tug of war, and you've lost contact with the present moment. We can simply accept that the mind is doing what the mind does. 

Step four:

After a few minutes, or when you feel ready, sit up, take a deep breath or two, and proceed to engage with the rest of your day, perhaps bringing to it a somewhat more mindful and engaged quality than before. There’s no set time for this exercise, if a minute or less is all you can manage you will still benefit. 


Troubleshooting

At some point in this process, the mind may well start to pull us out of this moment into rumination, asking “What’s the point?”, “This is boring”, “I’m thirsty”. That’s fine, that’s what our minds do. And of course, we don’t want to make it a fight, as Carl Jung said “what we resist persists”.  The more we deny, resist or run away from what manifests within, in a sense the more energy we give it. This comes back to the need to simply become the impartial (as far as possible, it takes practice) observer of our inner experience from a place of openness and curiosity, almost as if we were observing it in another body. That is the key shift we need to step out of mental “auto-pilot”.
 
A sign of progress is when you start to be able to recognise the mind’s process, you may even find something faintly amusing about it. If you place a crawling child on a rug the chances are they’ll crawl off it, so you gently pull them back, sometimes many times. This is a useful analogy for the process of the mind. When you notice your mind crawling off into some thought, can you gently pull things back by returning to a focus on the inner feeling or sensation?  
 
If we gently persist without criticising ourselves or making it a fight, this and other ACT ideas can help us learn to recognise and step out of inner judgement and rumination.  While the mind is quieter it begins to loosen its grip upon us, and we can see how it works and become more flexible, understanding ourselves better and starting to take action towards being the person we aspire to be. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Crawley, West Sussex, RH10
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Written by Simon Ward, MBACP (Accred.), BSc (Hons)
Crawley, West Sussex, RH10

Simon Ward is an integrative BACP (accredited) counsellor working in private practice in West Sussex. Having practiced and studied meditation and associated ideas for around thirty years he has gravitated towards Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and the profound levels upon which this approach can work.

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