A Beginner’s Guide to Common ACT Therapy Techniques

Beginner’s Guide to Common ACT Therapy Techniques
Table of Contents

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT, is a widely used therapeutic approach. Although it was initially developed as a treatment for panic disorder, ACT can be applied to a variety of issues, including:

  • depression,
  • substance abuse, and
  • obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

In addition to the benefits mentioned above, ACT holds the power to boost your self-awareness, equip you with tools to navigate challenging emotions, and guide you towards a more fulfilling life journey. Whether you’re intrigued by ACT therapy, eager to explore its methods, or seeking practical strategies to enhance your well-being, this article is your ticket to a transformative beginning.

Join us as we delve into the fundamental principles of ACT, getting to the heart of its essence, and uncovering a treasure trove of techniques that seasoned ACT therapists swear by.

What is ACT?

ACT is a type of therapy that focuses on changing your relationship to uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. A core belief of ACT is that emotional distress stems from avoidance of negative experiences. ACT teaches that suffering is a part of life and uses mindfulness practices to help you manage negative thoughts and feelings more effectively.

The goal of ACT is to increase psychological flexibility, or the ability to adapt to challenging situations. Another focus of ACT is identifying personal values– for example, family, health and wellness, or personal growth– so that you can align these with behavior. This helps to create a sense of purpose, resulting in greater life fulfillment and satisfaction.

To achieve these objectives, ACT works on 6 core processes, collectively called the “hexaflex.” These processes are:

Now that you are familiar with the core principles of ACT, let’s look at some of its techniques.

ACT Therapy Techniques

An ACT therapist will spend a few sessions getting to know you and your concerns, and then choose the techniques that will be the most helpful to you. Below, you’ll find a selection of these techniques categorized by core process. Notice, however, that there is some overlap– for example, many of the cognitive defusion exercises also involve contact with the present moment.

Acceptance

Have you ever noticed that we tend to be our own worst enemies? We “say” things to ourselves that we would never say to someone else. “How could you be so stupid?” “Get it together!” “What’s wrong with you?” Sometimes these thoughts are conditioned by a hyper-critical environment, while other times, they are a misguided attempt to motivate a change in behavior. Either way, this type of negative self-talk is usually ineffective. Instead of being motivated, we end up frustrated and demoralized.

Technique #1: Self-compassion

Self-compassion encourages us to talk ourselves through a challenging situation the way a beloved friend, teacher, or coach would. It starts with accepting negative thoughts and emotions instead of judging ourselves harshly for them.

Exercise: Self-compassion

Try this: Imagine that a loved one is confronting a challenging situation. What would you say to them? Write these words in a letter or record them on your phone. Read or play them back whenever you need some TLC!

For more self-compassion exercises, visit: https://self-compassion.org/

Technique #2: Exposure

One of the core beliefs of ACT is that suffering comes from avoiding negative thoughts, emotions, and experiences. While it’s natural to want to avoid discomfort, doing so often exacerbates the very emotion we are looking to eliminate!

For example, let’s say you’ve been in an automobile accident and now are afraid to drive. By avoiding driving, you remain stuck in the anxiety-provoking experience of the accident instead of gaining the broader perspective that while accidents happen; they are the exception as opposed to the norm. Your anxiety increases, possibly even generalizing to riding as a passenger or crossing the street!

Exposure is a technique that directly counteracts our urge to avoid. Exposure involves gradually confronting anxiety-provoking situations in a safe and controlled environment, with the goal of increasing psychological flexibility and distress tolerance. Over time, the anxiety becomes less and less intense, and the urge to avoid easier to overcome.

Exercise: Exposure

Try this: First, rank the situations that trigger your anxiety in order from least to most. For example, if social events tend to make you anxious, you might list “get together with a close friend” as the least triggering, then “get together with a close friend and two acquaintances,” gradually working up to “get together with a group of strangers.”

Once you have ranked these scenarios, make a list of relaxation techniques you can use in each situation. For example, maybe you try deep breathing or use a touchstone or other comforting object. You can also use affirmations like “You’ve got this.” Experiment with a few techniques to see what works best for you.

Finally, using your relaxation strategies, start at the top of your “feared situations” list and do the following:

  • Imagine the feared situation.
  • View pictures or videos related to the feared situation.
  • Engage in the feared activity, starting with exposures of limited duration and gradually increasing the amount of time you spend until you feel ready to progress to the next stage.

Cognitive Defusion

The goal of cognitive defusion is to create distance between you and your thoughts. This can help you to accurately see your thoughts as mental events rather than as objective truths.

When you identify with your thoughts, you believe them without question and may act on them impulsively. For example, if you believe your friend is angry with you, you may get defensive and provoke a fight or avoid the friend altogether. Either way, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because the relationship is damaged.

By creating some space between yourself and your thoughts, you can observe them more objectively, evaluate them more critically, and make more intentional choices about how to respond to them. Continuing the example above, you recognize that you are feeling insecure in your friendship and that is affecting your interpretation of events. Instead of getting defensive or avoiding, you approach your friend with your concerns and have a productive conversation, mending the relationship.

Technique # 1: Metaphors

Metaphors can help create distance between you and your thoughts. By imagining thoughts as transient objects, you can let your thoughts come and go without believing or reacting to them.

Exercise: Metaphors

The next time you are feeling overwhelmed by negative thoughts, try the following:

  • Imagine your thoughts like clouds in the sky, passing in and out of your awareness.
  • Picture your thoughts like words on a screen, present but not part of you.
  • Visualize thoughts as sticks floating by in a stream.
  • Imagine your thoughts as buses coming and going from a station.
  • Picture your thoughts like waves on a shore, crashing, then gently receding.

Technique #2: Struggle switch

Imagine you are waiting to go on stage to accept a prestigious award. You try to silently rehearse your speech but realize you have forgotten the words. Immediately, you have the thought that you are going to make a fool of yourself in front of hundreds of people. Then, just as quickly, you tell yourself not to think about this possibility. But the more you try not to think about bombing on stage, the harder it is to keep it from your mind.

Sometimes, our thoughts and emotions can be like quicksand. The more we struggle against them, the more they consume us. Although it may feel counterintuitive, the best way to escape quicksand is not to fight but to lie down, spreading your arms and legs to disperse the weight of your body. In ACT, the “struggle switch” is the equivalent of lying down to avoid being swallowed up by quicksand.

Exercise: Struggle switch

Try this: Imagine that there is a switch in the back of your head that you can turn on and off. The “on” setting activates your usual defense mechanisms, such as avoiding uncomfortable situations or refusing to accept difficult thoughts and emotions. The “off” setting stops this struggle, effectively deactivating the “quicksand.” You can switch off the struggle by doing the following:

  • Pause what you are doing.
  • Take a few deep breaths.
  • Identify the distressing thought or emotion.
  • Accept the discomfort instead of trying to avoid or struggle against it. Imagine that it is an uninvited party guest. Instead of turning it away or slamming the door, you are inviting it in to mingle with the other guests.
  • Allow the uncomfortable thought or feeling to exist in the background while you refocus on other “guests.”

Here is an example that shows the struggle switch in action:

ThoughtAcceptanceRefocus
I am going to completely screw up my speech and everyone is going to think I am incompetent.I am feeling anxious about my speech. It’s normal to feel anxious. I can allow this anxiety to exist and proceed with my speech.I start a conversation with another award winner and find out that they are anxious, too.

Technique #3: Radio Doom and Gloom

Another way to stop struggling against distressing thoughts or emotions is to imagine them like a “doom and gloom” radio station. This station broadcasts negative stories 24 hours a day. It reminds you of past mistakes, warns you of future calamities, and updates you on all the things that are wrong with your life. As you can imagine, listening to this station is very stressful! Unfortunately, you can’t always change the station, and you can’t simply turn off the radio. What you can do is create some distance between you and your thoughts, effectively turning down the volume on the “doom and gloom.”

How do you turn down the volume? By refocusing on the present moment. To help you understand how this works, think of a time that you have been so fully engaged in an activity that everything in the background fades away. You are engrossed in gardening, so you don’t hear the telephone ring. You are intent on practicing gymnastics, so you don’t notice the sirens of the emergency vehicles passing by. This is the goal of the Radio Doom and Gloom technique—to refocus on an activity in the present so that the radio becomes mere background noise.

Exercise: Radio Doom and Gloom

To practice this technique, close your eyes and imagine that your mind is a radio. What does the radio look like—old-fashioned or modern, digital or manual, wood or chrome? What station is the radio currently tuned to, and what program is that station broadcasting? Imagine your thoughts are words spoken by the program host. The words might represent the opinion of the radio host, or they could be on a script that the host is reading on air. Either way, they are just words.

Now, allow the program to play on while you refocus on an activity in the present. This could be something you were already doing when the radio started playing “doom and gloom,” or it could be an activity that you enjoy. Either way, the more focus and attention the activity requires, the lower the volume will be on the radio.

Here is an example of this technique in action:

“Doom and gloom” thoughtResponse
I haven’t heard from my friend in a while. I bet they are mad at me. I always screw up my relationships.Wow, this radio program is all “doom and gloom!” I’m going to let that be background noise while I refocus on sketching in my book.

Technique #4: Name the story

We all have internal narratives that we create about ourselves and our experiences. For example, maybe you grew up with siblings who seemed to do everything right while you were constantly breaking rules and making mistakes. The resulting narrative might be something like this: I am the screw-up of the family. I can’t do anything right. I’ll never be as good as my siblings.

As much as you might believe this narrative to be true, it is just one interpretation of the situation. One of your siblings might very well tell it this way: I am too anxious to risk breaking the rules or making a mistake. I wish I could be more fearless, like my sibling.

In ACT, these narratives are called “stories,” and they can be limiting and unhelpful. For example, if you think you are a “screw up,” you might avoid setting goals for yourself, incorrectly assuming that you would just fail to reach them anyways.

Naming the story helps create distance between you and unhelpful narratives. It helps you see that just like the stories we read in books, the narratives we form about ourselves are subjective interpretations as opposed to fact.

For example, the narrative described above could be named the “black sheep story.” Every time you have a thought related to this narrative, you can remind yourself that it is just a story, no more real than a fairy tale.

Contact with the present moment

Technique #1: Anchor breathing

Because breathing is an automatic process, we typically don’t pay much attention to it. However, your breath is a powerful tool for refocusing on the present moment. It is also helpful in alleviating anxiety and stress. That’s because breathing deeply and consciously engages the body’s relaxation response.

Exercise: Anchor breathing

Imagine being on a boat. Attached to the boat is an anchor. Now imagine your breath like that anchor, keeping you calm and safe. Put your hands on your belly and inhale deeply. Exhale slowly, feeling your belly rise and fall. If your mind wanders, gently return your focus to your “anchor.”

Technique #2: Tune into the 5 senses

Tuning into the 5 senses is an ACT technique that helps return your focus to the present moment. Since many of our daily activities are routine, we tend to do them on “auto-pilot,” letting our minds wander to other things. While driving to work, you think about the presentation you have to give that afternoon and end up missing the exit. You take a break for lunch, but rehearse the presentation in your head, barely tasting your meal. Later that night, while doing the dishes, you rehash the presentation in your head, analyzing every perceived mistake.

By intentionally focusing on your 5 senses, you can increase your contact with the present moment and access your body’s innate capacity to self-soothe.

Exercise: Tune into the 5 senses

The best part about this technique is that it can be practiced anytime, anywhere. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Driving– What can you see, feel, hear, smell?
  • Eating– Take a deep breath and savor the aroma of your food. Focus on how each morsel feels and tastes in your mouth.
  • Showering– Feel the warm water on your body. Notice the scent of the soap and shampoo, and how the suds feel in your hands.

Self-as-context

The observing self is a key concept in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). It refers to the part of you that can observe your thoughts, feelings, and experiences without judgment or attachment. It differs from the thinking self, which is the part of you that interprets your experience, creating stories and forming beliefs. The thinking self is often influenced by your family, culture, and past experiences, while the observing self is more connected to the present moment and the reality of your experience.

Technique #1: The observing self

By developing your observing self, you can become more aware of your thoughts and feelings as they arise, without getting caught up in them or trying to control them. This can help you to respond to difficult situations in a more flexible and adaptive way, rather than being driven by automatic reactions or habits.

Exercise: The observing self

Try this:

  • Start by noticing your physical self, including any sensations and the feel of your breath going in and out of your body.
  • This is your observing self, and it can choose where to focus its attention.
  • Imagine this observing self looking in on your physical body from a distance.
  • What does it see? Are there any signs/symptoms of what is going on internally?
  • Now imagine this observing self looking back on the present moment in a week, a month, or a year. What wisdom would this future self share with your present self?

Technique #2: Defusion from the conceptualized self

One of the goals of ACT is to disentangle yourself from self-concepts that limit personal growth. For example, maybe you believe “I am not good in social situations.” This self-concept limits you from participating in events like work conferences, parties, and other group activities.

In ACT, defusion from the conceptualized self involves recognizing that the opinions, beliefs, and values we hold about ourselves are not necessarily accurate or helpful. By defusing these self-concepts, we can reduce the impact they have on our behavior and emotions. We can instead choose to act in ways that align with our values and goals, rather than being limited by our self-concept.

Exercise: Defusion from the conceptualized self

Try this:

  • Name the self-concept– for example, “social awkwardness.”
  • Create a mental image of the self-concept: What does it look like? What is it wearing? What is it doing, and with whom?
  • Note that this image is distinct from you.
  • Silently say to yourself, “I let it go” while visualizing the mental image walking away.

Values

Identifying your values helps you understand what is truly meaningful and important to you in life. When you have a clear understanding of your values, you can make decisions that align with those values, leading to greater satisfaction and life fulfillment. Additionally, having a strong sense of your values can help you stay focused and motivated when faced with difficult choices or challenging situations.

Technique #1: Clarify your values

Use the following questions to identify your values in 5 life domains: relationships, activities, career, health and wellness, and personal growth.

Relationships

  • What kind of partner/friend/family member/coworker/community member do you want to be?
  • How would you describe your ideal relationship in each of these contexts?

Activities

  • What activities excite you?
  • Which activities bring you joy?
  • When do you feel the most fulfilled?

Career

  • What career goals matter most to you?
  • What is most important in a job– money, contributing to the greater good, doing something you love?

Health and wellness

  • How important is your physical health?
  • How important is your emotional health?
  • How important is spiritual health?
  • What goals do you have in each of these areas?

Personal development and growth

  • What personal characteristics are you most proud of?
  • Which characteristics do you most want to develop?

Technique #2: Write your own eulogy

What would you want a loved one to say about you after you’ve passed? If a eulogy feels too morbid, you can substitute a birthday or anniversary speech. Either way, this technique will help clarify what is most important to you and motivate you to live in accordance with your values. You can use the following questions as a starting point:

  • How do you want to be remembered?
  • What kind of impact do you want to have on the world?
  • Are there any challenges you want to overcome or accomplishments you would like noted?
  • What wisdom would you like to pass on to the next generation?
  • Include any memories or humorous stories that showcase your values or personality.

Committed Action

Technique #1: Identify any values deviations:

Once you have identified your personal values, you can identify any deviation or discrepancy between values and actions.

Try this:

  • Rank your values in order of importance from 1-10, with 1 being less important and 10 being most important.
  • Now, rank these values according to the level of fulfillment they provide, again 1 being least and 10 being greatest.
  • The difference between these two values is your “values deviation”

For example, let’s say your top value is family, so you rate it a 10 on the scale of importance. However, you feel unfulfilled in this area because you travel a lot for work and so don’t see your family as often as you would like. So, you rate your fulfillment a 2. Your values deviation would then be 10-2, or 8.

Once you’ve calculated the deviation for each value, you can add them together to get your overall “life deviation score.”

*For a free worksheet that details this technique, go to: https://positive.b-cdn.net/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/Ranking-Your-Values-and-Finding-Your-Life-Deviation-Score.pdf

Technique #2: Values-driven action planning

You can use the deviations noted in the above exercise to set goals that will help align actions and values. For example, a goal to address a family values deviation could be:

Conclusion

ACT is a powerful therapeutic approach that can help you overcome a variety of psychological and life challenges. Like any therapy, ACT has its pros and cons and may not be right for everyone. For example, since ACT emphasizes contact with the present moment, so it may not be helpful for those who need to address traumatic experiences. In addition, the techniques above require a certain degree of independence and initiative, which can be hard for people who are experiencing depression or other severe mental health issues.

While we hope that this article has given you some tools to improve your health and well-being, it is not a substitute for professional advice or treatment. A licensed therapist can help you determine if ACT is the right approach for you.

Lindsay Schwartz
Lindsay Schwartz
I am a psychotherapist turned mental health writer. My hope is to draw upon my professional experience to provide readers with practical, accessible advice for improving their mental health. When I am not writing or reading about psychology, I’m usually walking my dog or enjoying a mindful moment in nature!