Do you struggle with intrusive, negative thoughts that you can’t seem to stop? Do you often find yourself wrestling with your emotions or experiencing guilt when you can’t push through sadness, anger, pessimism, or other difficult feelings?
When we experience negative emotions, our go-to reaction is often to try and escape these feelings however we can. You might try to deny the way you feel, become immobilized, or do an activity that distracts you. Through doing so, you might find you only magnify those issues, feel ashamed, or cope in a way that is harmful to your overall well-being and mental health.
At the heart of acceptance and commitment therapy is accepting what you can’t control and focusing on living in the present moment. Today we’ll explore the value of accepting —rather than fighting — negative emotions and how this can help you work through intrusive thoughts, depression, anxiety, and other common mental health concerns.
Should You Be Positive All the Time?
Why are negative emotions so hard to cope with? Part of the issue is the way people often think of these emotions in the first place. Think back to the last time you felt especially upset. Maybe you had a hard day at work and felt really stressed. Or maybe you received poor customer service at the store and felt angry. Often, when we feel mad, irritable, stressed, sad, or disappointed, we would say we’re “feeling bad.” If you just changed your mindset, you wouldn’t feel that way – right? Maybe what you need is a more positive outlook and you wouldn’t have felt “bad” in the first place.
The core issue with believing you should be positive no matter the circumstance is the simple fact that no one feels positive all the time. Rather, by denying the painful emotions, negative experiences, and relationship issues you’re bound to experience, you are only invalidating your actual experience and stunting the growth that could take place if you instead learned to work through and cope with those emotions in a healthy way. There’s a phrase for this line of thinking and you’ve probably heard before. Toxic positivity.
While there’s nothing wrong with practicing gratitude or seeking a positive outlook on life, toxic positivity takes these concepts to an extreme. It is an assumption that you should be positive in every situation, whether your toddler just split milk down your shirt, your angry coworker is yelling in your face, or you’ve just experienced a painful loss or trauma.
Brushing off the situation can make you more likely to react in an extreme manner, become resentful, or stunt healing. You may also express your frustration or pain to someone else only to get a response like “at least you didn’t get hurt” or “you just have to keep your head up.” These responses only invalidate your experience and can lead you to put on a façade that hides how you’re truly feeling inside. How Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Works And this is where acceptance and commitment therapy comes into play. ACT is a specific type of psychotherapy that emphasizes accepting and moving forward from things you cannot change. It also encourages an increased commitment to constructive, healthy activities that uphold your values and treatment goals.
Therapists who specialize in acceptance and commitment therapy focus on the idea that increasing acceptance may help lead to increased psychological and emotional flexibility. This particular treatment approach provides a variety of benefits that help you learn to acknowledge and engage with certain thoughts or emotional experiences.
ACT differs from other traditional therapeutic models, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, in that the goal is not to reduce the severity or frequency of unpleasant emotional experiences. Instead, it is to reduce the challenges you face when attempting to control or eliminate these experiences. ACT also aims to increase your involvement in meaningful life activities.
Acceptance and commitment therapy involves six components:
Acceptance is the process of allowing your inner thoughts and feelings to occur without making an active attempt to ignore or change them. This is an active process, meaning its outcomes are something you try to make happen.
2. Cognitive Defusion
Cognitive defusion is a technique that involves creating distance between your thoughts so you can begin to notice, observe, reframe, and let go of them. This process allows you to see thoughts as nothing more than thoughts. In doing so, your mind no longer assigns certain thoughts as being more important or concerning than another.
3. Self as Context
Self as context is the process of separating your “self” from your “experience.” This component involves learning to view your thoughts about yourself as separate from the actions and behaviors you perform and your self-concept.
If you associate yourself with a certain identity that you hold on to tightly, your thoughts and behaviors are impacted by that label. For example, you might say “I am a depressed person” or “I have anger issues.” ACT aims to flip that thinking and recognize that your experiences are constantly in flux and do not define who you are.
4. Being Present
Acceptance and commitment therapy encourages participants to remain mindful of their surroundings and learn how to shift their attention away from internal thoughts and feelings to what is happening in their environment.
Values are the areas in your life that are important enough to you to motivate you to take action or make a change. These aren’t objectives or goals you want to achieve. Rather they are the principles you use to guide your actions.
Commitment or committed action is the part of the therapeutic process that involves actively changing your behaviors based on the above guiding principles and other factors covered in therapy. Committed action describes the process of following through with your personal values.
What Can Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Help With?
Most therapeutic models for mental health and substance use disorders are effective across a wide range of conditions. However, certain models, like ACT, have the biggest impact for people struggling with specific mental health concerns. Studies suggest acceptance and commitment therapy may be effective in treating:
obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
substance use disorders
What Are the Primary Benefits of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy?
A major benefit of ACT is its focus on psychological flexibility. This concept addresses your ability to embrace thoughts and feelings when they are helpful or beneficial and to set them aside or ignore them when they are not. Psychological flexibility allows you to respond to inner experiences and avoid short-term, impulsive actions.
By understanding and practicing psychological flexibility, you can focus on living a healthier, more meaningful life. Psychological flexibility may improve your ability to accept and function with symptoms of various mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety.
Another benefit of ACT is a strong focus on personal values. Clients are encouraged to identify personal values and use them to guide actions and behaviors.
Find an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Provider at the Lukin Center
A provider trained in acceptance and commitment therapy will be both an emphatic and active listener. They will provide guidance and encourage deeper exploration and awareness during therapy sessions. Sessions are generally hands-on and include mindfulness training, psychological exercises, and homework for the next session. Completing these “assignments” is essential to treatment success as it helps you learn new skills and practice psychological flexibility.
At the Lukin Center for Psychotherapy, our goal is to help you discover a more fulfilling life using evidence-based psychotherapy to help you cope with negative thoughts, work through unwanted behaviors, and discover healing and growth. We’re here to partner with you and provide you with the compassionate, professional care you deserve.
Looking for a therapy provider who can help you thrive? Dr. Lukin will personally match you with a provider that has the right background and training for your needs. Contact us at the Lukin Center today.
Konstantin Lukin, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist psychologist and founder of Lukin Center for Psychotherapy in Ridgewood, Hoboken, Montclair, Jersey City, Englewood and Westfield. He has extensive clinical and research experience spanning individuals of all ages, in both inpatient and outpatient settings. He specializes in men’s issues, couple’s counseling, and relationship problems. His therapeutic approach focuses on providing support and practical feedback to help patients effectively address personal challenges. He integrates complementary modalities and techniques to offer a personalized approach tailored to each patient. He has been trained in cognitive-behavioral, dialectical behavior, schema-focused, and emotionally focused therapy, and has also been involved with research projects throughout his career, including two National Institute of Mental Health-funded studies. He is a member of the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, New Jersey Psychological Association, Northeast Counties Association of Psychologists, New York State Psychological Association, The International Centre for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy, The New York Center for Emotionally Focused Therapy, the International OCD Foundation, the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science (ACSB) and a regular contributor to Psychology Today.
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