Acceptance and commitment therapy

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Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT, typically pronounced as the word "act") is a form of psychotherapy commonly described as a form of cognitive-behavior therapy or of clinical behavior analysis (CBA).[1] It is an empirically-based psychological intervention that uses acceptance and mindfulness strategies mixed in different ways[2] with commitment and behavior-change strategies, to increase psychological flexibility. The approach was originally called comprehensive distancing.[3] It was begun in 1982 by Steven C. Hayes and was first tested by Robert Zettle in 1985, but was built out into its modern form in the late 1980s.[4][5] There are a variety of protocols for ACT, depending on the target behavior or setting. For example, in behavioral health areas a brief version of ACT is called focused acceptance and commitment therapy (FACT).[6]

The objective of ACT is not elimination of difficult feelings; rather, it is to be present with what life brings us and to "move toward valued behavior".[7] Acceptance and commitment therapy invited people to open up to unpleasant feelings, and learn not to overreact to them, and not avoiding situations where they are invoked. Its therapeutic effect is a positive spiral where feeling better leads to a better understanding of the truth.[8]

Medical uses[edit]

A 2015 review found that ACT was better than placebo and typical treatment for anxiety disorders, depression, and addiction.[9] Its effectiveness was similar to traditional treatments like CBT.[9] The authors suggested that the CBT comparison of the previous 2012 meta-analysis may have been compromised by the inclusion of nonrandomized trials with small sample sizes. They also noted that research methodologies had improved since the studies described in the 2008 meta-analysis.[9]

A 2008 meta-analysis concluded that the evidence was still too limited for ACT to be considered a supported treatment, and raised methodological concerns about the research base[10] A meta-analysis in 2009, found that ACT was more effective than placebo and "treatment as usual" for most problems (with the exception of anxiety and depression), but not more effective than CBT and other traditional therapies.[11] A 2012 meta-analysis was more positive and reported that ACT outperformed CBT, except for treating depression and anxiety.[12]

The number of randomized clinical trials and controlled time series evaluating ACT for a variety of problems is still limited but growing. In 2006, only about 30 such studies were known,[13] but in 2011 the number had approximately doubled.[14] Most studies of ACT so far have been conducted on adults and therefore the knowledge of its effectiveness when applied to children and adolescents is limited. But studies done on ACT in relation to children, adolescents and their parents, have shown positive outcomes.[15][16][17]

Correlational evidence has also found that absence of these processes predicts many forms of psychopathology. A 2005 meta-analysis showed that ACT processes, on average, account for 16–29% of the variance in psychopathology (general mental health, depression, anxiety) at baseline, depending on the measure, using correlational methods.[13]:12–13 A 2012 meta-analysis of 68 laboratory-based studies on ACT components has also provided support for the link between psychological flexibility concepts and specific components.[18][non sequitur]


ACT is developed within a pragmatic philosophy called functional contextualism. ACT is based on relational frame theory (RFT), a comprehensive theory of language and cognition that is an offshoot of behavior analysis. ACT differs from traditional cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in that rather than trying to teach people to better control their thoughts, feelings, sensations, memories and other private events, ACT teaches them to "just notice," accept, and embrace their private events, especially previously unwanted ones.

ACT helps the individual get in contact with a transcendent sense of self known as "self-as-context"—the you that is always there observing and experiencing and yet distinct from one's thoughts, feelings, sensations, and memories. ACT aims to help the individual clarify their personal values and to take action on them, bringing more vitality and meaning to their life in the process, increasing their psychological flexibility.[3]

While Western psychology has typically operated under the "healthy normality" assumption which states that by their nature, humans are psychologically healthy, ACT assumes, rather, that psychological processes of a normal human mind are often destructive.[19] The core conception of ACT is that psychological suffering is usually caused by experiential avoidance, cognitive entanglement, and resulting psychological rigidity that leads to a failure to take needed behavioral steps in accord with core values. As a simple way to summarize the model, ACT views the core of many problems to be due to the concepts represented in the acronym, FEAR:

  • Fusion with your thoughts
  • Evaluation of experience
  • Avoidance of your experience
  • Reason-giving for your behavior

And the healthy alternative is to ACT:

  • Accept your reactions and be present
  • Choose a valued direction
  • Take action

Core principles[edit]

ACT commonly employs six core principles to help clients develop psychological flexibility:[19]

  1. Cognitive defusion: Learning methods to reduce the tendency to reify thoughts, images, emotions, and memories.
  2. Acceptance: Allowing thoughts to come and go without struggling with them.
  3. Contact with the present moment: Awareness of the here and now, experienced with openness, interest, and receptiveness.
  4. Observing the self: Accessing a transcendent sense of self, a continuity of consciousness which is unchanging.
  5. Values: Discovering what is most important to one's true self.[20]
  6. Committed action: Setting goals according to values and carrying them out responsibly.


ACT, dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), functional analytic psychotherapy (FAP), mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) and other acceptance- and mindfulness-based approaches are commonly grouped under the name "the third wave of cognitive behavior therapy".[21][22] The first wave, behaviour therapy, commenced in the 1920s based on Pavlov's classical (respondent) conditioning and operant conditioning that was correlated to reinforcing consequences. The second wave emerged in the 1970s and included cognition in the form of irrational beliefs, dysfunctional attitudes or depressogenic attributions.[23] In the late 1980s empirical limitations and philosophical misgivings of the second wave gave rise to Steven Hayes' ACT theory which modified the focus of abnormal behaviour away from the content or form towards the context in which it occurs.[23] ACT research has suggested that many of the emotional defenses individuals use with conviction, to solve disorders, actually entangle humans into suffering.[24]

Steven C. Hayes described this group in his ABCT President Address as follows:

Grounded in an empirical, principle-focused approach, the third wave of behavioral and cognitive therapy is particularly sensitive to the context and functions of psychological phenomena, not just their form, and thus tends to emphasize contextual and experiential change strategies in addition to more direct and didactic ones. These treatments tend to seek the construction of broad, flexible and effective repertoires over an eliminative approach to narrowly defined problems, and to emphasize the relevance of the issues they examine for clinicians as well as clients. The third wave reformulates and synthesizes previous generations of behavioral and cognitive therapy and carries them forward into questions, issues, and domains previously addressed primarily by other traditions, in hopes of improving both understanding and outcomes.

ACT has also been adapted to create a non-therapy version of the same processes called Acceptance and Commitment Training. This training process, oriented towards the development of mindfulness, acceptance, and values skills in non-clinical settings such as businesses or schools, has also been investigated in a handful of research studies with good preliminary results.[25] This is somewhat similar to the awareness–management movement in business training programs, where mindfulness and cognitive-shifting techniques are employed.[citation needed]

The emphasis of ACT on ongoing present moment awareness, valued directions and committed action is similar to other psycho-therapeutic approaches that, unlike ACT, are not as focused on outcome research or consciously linked to a basic behavioral science program, including approaches such as Gestalt therapy, Morita therapy and Voice Dialogue, IFS and others.[citation needed]

Wilson, Hayes & Byrd explore at length the compatibilities between ACT and the 12-step treatment of addictions and argue that, unlike most other psychotherapies, both approaches can be implicitly or explicitly integrated due to their broad commonalities. Both approaches endorse acceptance as an alternative to unproductive control. ACT emphasizes the hopelessness of relying on ineffectual strategies to control private experience, similarly the 12-step approach emphasizes the acceptance of powerlessness over addiction. Both approaches encourage a broad life-reorientation, rather than a narrow focus on the elimination of substance use, and both place great value on the long-term project of building of a meaningful life aligned with the clients' values. ACT and 12-step both encourage the pragmatic utility of cultivating a transcendent sense of self (higher power) within an unconventional, individualized spirituality. Finally they both openly accept the paradox that acceptance is a necessary condition for change and both encourage a playful awareness of the limitations of human thinking.[26]


Some published studies in clinical psychology have argued that ACT is not different from other interventions.[27][28] A meta-analysis by Öst in 2008 concluded that ACT did not yet qualify as an "empirically supported treatment," that the research methodology for ACT was less stringent than cognitive behavioral therapy, and that the mean effect size was moderate.[29] Supporters of ACT have challenged those conclusions by showing that the quality different in Öst's review was accounted for by the larger number of funded trials in the CBT comparison group.[30]

Several concerns, both theoretical and empirical, have arisen in response to the ascendency of ACT. One major theoretical concern is that the primary authors of ACT and of the corresponding theories of human behavior, relational frame theory (RFT) and functional contextualism (FC), recommend their approach as the proverbial holy grail of psychological therapies. Psychologist James C. Coyne, in a discussion of "disappointments and embarrassments in the branding of psychotherapies as evidence supported", said: "Whether or not ACT is more efficacious than other therapies, as its proponents sometimes claim, or whether it is efficacious for psychosis, is debatable".[31]

Psychologist Jonathan W. Kanter said that Hayes and colleagues "argue that empirical clinical psychology is hampered in its efforts to alleviate human suffering and present contextual behavioral science (CBS) to address the basic philosophical, theoretical and methodological shortcomings of the field. CBS represents a host of good ideas but at times the promise of CBS is obscured by excessive promotion of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Relational Frame Theory (RFT) and demotion of earlier cognitive and behavior change techniques in the absence of clear logic and empirical support."[32] Nevertheless, Kanter concluded that "the ideas of CBS, RFT, and ACT deserve serious consideration by the mainstream community and have great potential to shape a truly progressive clinical science to guide clinical practice."[32]

ACT currently appears to be about as effective as CBT, with some meta-analyses showing small differences in favor of ACT and others not. For example, a meta-analysis published by Francisco Ruiz in 2012[33] looked at 16 studies comparing ACT to standard CBT. ACT failed to separate from CBT on effect sizes for depression, anxiety or quality of life. The author did find separation between ACT and CBT on the "primary outcome" – a heterogeneous class of 14 separate outcome measures that were aggregated into the effect size analysis. This analysis however is limited by the highly heterogeneous nature of the outcome variables used in the analysis, which has the tendency to increase the number needed to treat (NNT) to replicate the effect size reported. More limited measures, such as depression, anxiety and quality of life decrease the NNT, making the analysis more clinically relevant, and on these measures ACT did not outperform CBT.

Professional organizations[edit]

The Association for Contextual Behavioral Science is committed to research and development in the area of ACT, RFT, and contextual behavioral science more generally. As of mid-2016 it had over 8,300 members worldwide, about half outside of the United States. It holds annual "world conference" meetings: The 14th will be held in Seattle in June 2016.[34]

The Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI) has a special interest group for practitioner issues, behavioral counseling, and clinical behavior analysis ABA:I.[citation needed] ABAI has larger special interest groups for autism and behavioral medicine. ABAI serves as the core intellectual home for behavior analysts.[35][36] ABAI sponsors three conferences/year—one multi-track in the U.S., one specific to Autism and one international.

The Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT) also has an interest group in behavior analysis, which focuses on clinical behavior analysis. ACT work is commonly presented at ABCT and other mainstream CBT organizations.

The British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies (BABCP) has a large special interest group in ACT, with over 1,200 members.

Doctoral-level behavior analysts who are psychologists belong to the American Psychological Association's division 25—Behavior analysis. APA offers a diplomate[clarification needed] in behavioral psychology.

The World Association for Behavior Analysis offers certification in behavior therapy which covers knowledge of ACT.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Jennifer C Plumb; Ian Stewart; Galway JoAnne Dahl; Tobias Lundgren (Spring 2009). "In Search of Meaning: Values in Modern Clinical Behavior Analysis". Behav Anal. 32 (1): 85–103. PMC 2686995free to read. PMID 22478515. 
  2. ^ Hayes, Steven. "Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT)". 
  3. ^ a b Zettle, Robert D. (2005). "The Evolution of a Contextual Approach to Therapy: From Comprehensive Distancing to ACT". International Journal of Behavioral Consultation and Therapy. 1 (2): 77–89. 
  4. ^ Murdock, N. L. (2009). Theories of counseling and psychotherapy: A case approach. Upper Saddle River, N.J: Merrill/Pearson
  5. ^ "Getting in on the Act - The Irish Times - Tue, Jun 07, 2011". The Irish Times. 2011-06-07. Retrieved 2012-03-16. 
  6. ^ "Focused Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (FACT): Mastering The Basics". Association for Contextual Behavioral Science. Archived from the original on 2016-04-07. Retrieved 2016-04-07. 
  7. ^ Hayes, Steven C.; Strosahl, Kirk D.; Wilson, Kelly G. (2012). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: The Process and Practice of Mindful Change (2 ed.). New York: Guilford Press. p. 240. ISBN 978-1-60918-962-4. 
  8. ^ Shpancer, Noam (September 8, 2010). "Emotional Acceptance: Why Feeling Bad is Good". Psychology Today. 
  9. ^ a b c A-Tjak, JG; Davis, ML; Morina, N; Powers, MB; Smits, JA; Emmelkamp, PM (2015). "A meta-analysis of the efficacy of acceptance and commitment therapy for clinically relevant mental and physical health problems.". Psychotherapy and psychosomatics. 84 (1): 30–6. doi:10.1159/000365764. PMID 25547522. 
  10. ^ Öst, L. G. (2008). "Efficacy of the third wave of behavioral therapies: A systematic review and meta-analysis". Behaviour Research and Therapy. 46 (3): 296–321. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2007.12.005. PMID 18258216. 
  11. ^ Powers MB, Zum Vörde Sive Vörding MB, Emmelkamp PM (2009). "Acceptance and commitment therapy: A meta-analytic review.". Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics. 78: 73–80. doi:10.1159/000190790. 
  12. ^ Ruiz, F. J. (2012). "Acceptance and commitment therapy versus traditional cognitive behavioral therapy: A systematic review and meta-analysis of current empirical evidence". International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy. 12 (3): 333–358. 
  13. ^ a b Hayes, Steven C.; Luoma, Jason B.; Bond, Frank W.; Masuda, Akihiko; Lillis, Jason (2006). "Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: Model, processes and outcomes". Behaviour Research and Therapy. 44 (1): 1–25. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2005.06.006. PMID 16300724. 
  14. ^ Ruiz, F. J. (2010). "A review of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) empirical evidence: Correlational, experimental psychopathology, component and outcome studies". International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy. 10 (1): 125–62. 
  15. ^ Wicksell, Rikard K.; Melin, Lennart; Lekander, Mats; Olsson, Gunnar L. (2009). "Evaluating the effectiveness of exposure and acceptance strategies to improve functioning and quality of life in longstanding pediatric pain – A randomized controlled trial". Pain. 141 (3): 248–57. doi:10.1016/j.pain.2008.11.006. PMID 19108951. 
  16. ^ Murrell, Amy R.; Scherbarth, Andrew J. (2006). "State of the Research & Literature Address: ACT with Children, Adolescents and Parents". International Journal of Behavioral Consultation and Therapy. 2 (4): 531–43. 
  17. ^ Gendron, Benedicte (2012). "Le développement du capital émotionnel au service du bien-être à partir de l'approche de la thérapie de l'acceptation et de l'engagement" [Development of emotional capital serving the emotional well being from the approach of acceptance and commitment therapy]. In Martin-Krumm, Charles; Tarquinio, Cyril. Traité de psychologie positive [Treatise on Positive Psychology] (in French). De Boeck Supérieur. ISBN 978-2-8041-6614-4. [page needed]
  18. ^ Levin, Michael E.; Hildebrandt, Mikaela J.; Lillis, Jason; Hayes, Steven C. (2012). "The Impact of Treatment Components Suggested by the Psychological Flexibility Model: A Meta-Analysis of Laboratory-Based Component Studies". Behavior Therapy. 43 (4): 741–56. doi:10.1016/j.beth.2012.05.003. PMID 23046777. 
  19. ^ a b Harris, Russ (August 2006). "Embracing your demons: an overview of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy" (PDF). Psychotherapy in Australia. 12 (4): 2–8. 
  20. ^ Robb, Hank (2007). "Values as Leading Principles in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy". International Journal of Behavioral Consultation and Therapy. 3 (1): 118–23. doi:10.1037/h0100170. 
  21. ^ Martell, Addis & Jacobson, 2001, p. 197
  22. ^ Öst, L.G. (March 2008). "Efficacy of the third wave of behavioral therapies: a systematic review and meta-analysis". Behaviour research and therapy. 46 (3): 296–321. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2007.12.005. PMID 18258216. 
  23. ^ a b Leahy, R. L. (2004). Contemporary cognitive therapy: Theory, research, and practice. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
  24. ^ Hayes, S. C., & Smith, S. (2005). Get Out of Your Mind and into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Santa Rosa, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
  25. ^ Hayes, S.C.; Bond, F.W.; Barnes-Holmes, D. & Austin, J. (2007). Acceptance And Mindfulness at Work: Applying Acceptance and Commitment Therapy And Relational Frame Theory to Organizational Behavior Management. Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press.[page needed]
  26. ^ Wilson, Kelly G.; Hayes, Steven C.; Byrd, Michelle R. (2000). "Exploring Compatibilities Between Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and 12-Step Treatment for Substance Abuse". Journal of Rational-Emotive and Cognitive-Behavior Therapy. 18 (4): 209–234. doi:10.1023/A:1007835106007. 
  27. ^ Hofmann, Stefan G.; Asmundson, Gordon J.G. (2008). "Acceptance and mindfulness-based therapy: New wave or old hat?". Clinical Psychology Review. 28 (1): 1–16. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2007.09.003. PMID 17904260. 
  28. ^ Arch, Joanna J.; Craske, Michelle G. (2008). "Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Anxiety Disorders: Different Treatments, Similar Mechanisms?". Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice. 15 (4): 263–279. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2850.2008.00137.x. 
  29. ^ Öst, Lars-Göran (2008). "Efficacy of the third wave of behavioral therapies: A systematic review and meta-analysis". Behaviour Research and Therapy. 46 (3): 296–321. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2007.12.005. PMID 18258216. 
  30. ^ Gaudiano, Brandon A. (2009). "Öst's (2008) methodological comparison of clinical trials of acceptance and commitment therapy versus cognitive behavior therapy: Matching Apples with Oranges?". Behaviour Research and Therapy. 47 (12): 1066–70. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2009.07.020. PMC 2786237free to read. PMID 19679300. 
  31. ^ Coyne, James C (22 October 2012). "Troubles in the branding of psychotherapies as 'evidence supported'". PLOS. Archived from the original on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 4 May 2016. 
  32. ^ a b Kanter, Jonathan W. (June 2013). "The vision of a progressive clinical science to guide clinical practice" (PDF). Behavior Therapy. 44 (2): 228–233. doi:10.1016/j.beth.2010.07.006. PMID 23611073. 
  33. ^ Ruiz, Francisco. "Acceptance and Commitment Therapy versus Traditional Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Current Empirical Evidence." International Journal of Psychology & Psychological Therapy, 12, 2, 333-357, 2012
  34. ^ "Conferences". Association for Contextual Behavioral Science. Retrieved 2016-04-01. 
  35. ^ Twyman, J.S. (2007). "A new era of science and practice in behavior analysis". Association for Behavior Analysis International: Newsletter. 30 (3): 1–4. 
  36. ^ Hassert, Derrick L.; Kelly, Amanda N.; Pritchard, Joshua K.; Cautilli, Joseph D. "The Licensing of Behavior Analysts: Protecting the Profession and the Public". Journal of Early and Intensive Behavior Intervention. 5 (2): 8–19. doi:10.1037/h0100415. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Hayes, Steven C.; Spencer Smith (2005). Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. New Harbinger Publications. ISBN 1-57224-425-9. 
  • Hayes, Steven C.; Kirk D. Strosahl (2004). A Practical Guide to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Springer. ISBN 0-387-23367-9. 
  • Hayes, Steven C.; Kirk D. Strosahl; Kelly G. Wilson (2003). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: An Experiential Approach to Behavior Change. The Guilford Press. ISBN 1-57230-955-5. 
  • Eifert, Georg H.; John P. Forsyth (2005). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Anxiety Disorders: A Practitioner's Treatment Guide to Using Mindfulness, Acceptance, and Value-Guide Behavior Change Strategies. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger. ISBN 1-57224-427-5. 
  • Forsyth, John P.; Georg H. Eifert (2007). The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety: A Guide to Breaking Free From Anxiety, Phobias, and Worry Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger. ISBN 1-57224-499-2. 
  • Martell, Christopher R.; Michael E. Addis; Neil S. Jacobson (2001). Depression in Context: Strategies for Guided Action. New York: W. W. Norton. ISBN 0-393-70350-9. 
  • Strosahl, Kirk; Gustavsson, Thomas; Robinson, Patricia A. (2012). Brief Interventions for Radical Change: Principles and Practice of Focused Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger. ISBN 978-16088-2345-1. 

External links[edit]

  • – Home for the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science, a professional organization dedicated to ACT, RFT, and functional contextualism. Also helpful for training opportunities for professionals interested in ACT and RFT. Most ACT workshops worldwide are listed here.
  • Steven C Hayes – One of ACT's main theorists, Dr. Hayes is at the University of Nevada. Information can also be found at his website
  • An Introduction to ACT
  • The ACT Formula for Self-Compassion - First published on the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science (ACBS) ListServ - By Dr. Russ Harris, MD and Dr. Emily Blake, PhD.