Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) views “negative” emotions and experiences as part of life. Trying to avoid them can lead to unhelpful or unproductive behaviours. ACT helps you accept the reality of these experiences and commit to pursuing your values.

Values can serve as guides that help shape your life path overall. Your goals, on the other hand, refer to more specific, short-term target actions that often reflect your values. Your values, for instance, might include knowledge, creativity, and personal development. A goal that embodies these values might be attending a prestigious employment environment.

In some cases, avoidance can be a useful problem-solving strategy, but it can backfire if you use it too often. For example, if you put off a difficult conversation with your best friend, it might give you time to explore your feelings and find a way to approach the subject delicately. On the other hand, if you’re giving a presentation at work and are nervous about public speaking you might distract yourself from your worries by watching TV instead of preparing. Procrastination may relieve anxiety in the short term, but it may leave you unprepared on the big day.

ACT helps you redefine your stressors so you can do the things you want to do while allowing distress or other emotions to simply be present as part of your experience.
In short, ACT can help you identify key values and explore ways they might guide your actions toward a meaningful life. You can then learn to make choices that match your objectives (such as giving a good presentation) and values (like success or professionalism) instead of your internal emotions (fear of failure, for example).

Typically, ACT is organized into distinct modules that teach you six core skills. ACT skills include:

1. Practicing mindfulness
Mindfulness helps you focus on the present moment, or your current thoughts, feelings, actions, and physical sensations. Why does mindfulness matter? Well, you might find it easier to control your reaction to a situation when you can recognize how it affects you as you experience it. Maybe bad news makes your head swim and your thoughts race, and you can’t catch your breath. Naming those sensations in your brain and body can help you find ways to work through them, like sitting down and taking several slow, deep breaths.

2. Keeping a balanced perspective
ACT helps you recognize and remember that you are not your feelings. You are a consciousness experiencing those feelings, which means you can choose how to respond to them. Your thoughts might urge you toward a specific action — like texting your ex when you feel lonely — but that doesn’t mean you have to actually follow through on that action.

3. Identifying values and goals
In this stage, you identify your strongest values, like serving your community, keeping your promises, or showing kindness to everyone. These values can help clue you in on the goals and dreams you’d find most meaningful to pursue. Living a life of purpose, as a general rule, often becomes easier when you have a clear destination in mind and a good understanding of what matters most to you.

4. Committing to values and goals
Dreams tend to stay stuck in your head until you put in the effort to make them a reality. To put it another way, fantasizing about X won’t make your happily ever after come any quicker. If you want to make romance happen, you’ll need to take steps to meet new people, whether that involves attending community events or finding a group of people interested in the same hobby.

5. Accepting unwanted feelings
Sometimes you’ll need to overcome some challenges in order to reach your goals. If you want to save up money to holiday, for instance, you might have to spend some time working at a job you don’t enjoy. This might cause some day-to-day frustration or resentment toward friends who don’t need to earn money for that holiday. Instead of trying to squash those emotions about them, ACT aims to help you learn to carry those feelings with you and accept them as part of the process. In other words, you can learn to fight for your dreams, not against yourself.

6. Cognitive defusion
When your thoughts or feelings interfere with your goals, a technique called cognitive defusion can help you take a mental step back and consider those thoughts from a more detached, objective point of view. Cognitive defusion can also help you avoid considering the world from the perspective of your current thoughts and emotions. Remember, emotions reflect your internal state, not the objective reality of the world around you.

For example, you may feel worthless during an episode of depression, but that emotion isn’t a reliable way to measure your value as a person. Instead, challenge yourself to create some distance from that thought. You might, for instance, think “I’m having the thought that I’m worthless.” You could also try visualizing that thought as an annoying pop-up ad. Rather than giving it space in your brain, just click the X in the corner to close the window.
ACT can help you accept even severe emotional distress and recognize it as part of the human experience, rather than a sign of something “wrong” with you. This approach can help you learn to engage in life even when challenged by things you can’t control, like illness, pain, loss, and severe mental health symptoms.

According to ACT’s primary philosophy, healing stems from accepting your emotions — not getting rid of them. ACT can help you address anxiety, depression and general emotional distress by helping you learn to accept and allow distressing or unwanted feelings as part of your lived experience. At the end of the day, learning how to live with difficult emotions may provide more control over how you react to them. This frees up valuable energy and attention so you can pursue your values and live life the way you want to.