- M. Wang
What Is Anxiety? Can Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) Help Me Cope With It?
Anxiety can make each and every day feel like an uphill battle.
Some days you can climb your mountain with no problem, yet other days it can knock you down so hard you wonder if you’ll ever reach the top.
There are many different forms of anxiety therapy, however, acceptance and commitment therapy uses a unique approach to control negative thoughts, and unwanted emotions, and allow you to live freely in the present moment.
But how exactly does this type of therapy help with anxiety? Let’s discuss what acceptance and commitment therapy is, and three techniques that have been proven effective for calming your body and mind.
What Is Anxiety?
Anxiety is part of the human experience. Some people feel anxious before a public speech, or when getting ready for a first date.
This type of anxiety is completely normal and passes as the situation unfolds. However, anxiety disorders are quite different.
Anxiety as a mental health condition is a persistent feeling of fear, worry, stress, or dread about the future. While many people with an anxiety disorder have certain triggers that make their anxiousness worse, it can also manifest for seemingly no reason at all.
Individuals that struggle with anxiety may experience any of the following symptoms:
Excessive fear of the future
Each person is unique in their experience with anxiety. Some may feel more of the physical effects such as headaches, dizziness, and tightness in their chest. Others may be more sensitive to the emotional side of feeling anxious and struggle with catastrophic thinking or jumping to every worst-case scenario.
No matter how someone experiences anxiety, it’s all caused by an uncontrollable, consistent worry about the future.
What Is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy?
Acceptance and commitment therapy, otherwise known as ACT, is a form of psychotherapy (a broad term that describes different forms of verbal and psychological methods used to treat mental health problems).
ACT focuses heavily on empowering clients to accept, rather than fight, reality. This could be negative thoughts, emotions, feelings, symptoms, or life circumstances. In addition, ACT encourages clients to make healthier life choices that align with their core values.
ACT is founded on radical acceptance of things we cannot control. By doing so, we’re able to see our situation for what it is, rather than waste precious time and energy worrying.
Unlike other forms of anxiety therapy, the main goal of ACT is not to reduce the frequency of unhealthy or negative thoughts. Instead, acceptance and commitment therapy focuses on decreasing a client's desire to control or avoid them while increasing their involvement in meaningful activities.
3 Helpful ACT Techniques Used To Reduce Anxiety :
The 6 core processes of acceptance and commitment therapy (acceptance, cognitive defusion, self as context, mindfulness, values, and commitment) all work to increase a client’s psychological flexibility.
Psychological flexibility is simply the ability to be present in the current moment, while allowing all emotions and thoughts to flow freely - even undesirable ones. When a client is able to recognize things as they are, they are able to make decisions based on their core values rather than how they feel in the moment.
Here are 3 effective techniques used in acceptance and commitment therapy that have all been proven beneficial for reducing both symptoms of anxiety and anxious thoughts.
Anxiety happens when we drift from the present moment. We drift away from our bodies and minds and become entangled in a web of future worries and past regrets. Doing so can increase stress, in turn causing anxiety to arise.
This is particularly true if stress is left untreated for an extended period of time. Generalized anxiety disorder and panic attack disorder can both form when stress is chronic and unmanaged.
Anchor breathing is a technique that helps ground us back to the present moment. It takes over and brings us back to the here and now.
When practicing anchor breathing, take note of these helpful tips:
Close your eyes, and imagine you’re on a boat. The water is calm and safe. The sun is shining and all is peaceful.
Attached to the boat is an anchor. This anchor keeps you in one place, which is where you want to be.
With your hands on your chest, breathe in slow and deep.
Once you’ve reached capacity, breathe out slowly.
Take note of the way your ribs rise, and fall.
Just like an anchor can ground a boat from drifting off to sea, our bodies, too, can serve as anchors. Our belly, nose, mouth, chest, and lungs can allow us to feel safe, grounded, and focused.
As your mind begins to race with anxious thoughts, try anchor breathing to help cope with your anxiety and bring you back to shore.
Observing Anxiety With Mindfulness:
Many people that suffer from anxiety live their day-to-day life in avoidance of it. Whether it’s social media scrolling, substance use, or Netflix binges, they may act in ways that help them take their minds off of the way they feel.
However, avoiding anxiety actually makes it worse. Observing anxiety through a mindful lens actually activates four of the main ACT components: mindfulness, cognitive defusion, acceptance, and self-as-context.
Once you can observe your anxiety for what it is, you’re no longer struggling against it.
This way, instead of feeling overwhelmed by the worry, stress, and irritability that often come along with anxious thoughts, you can instead sit with it, accept it for what it is, and allow it to move through you.
Radio Doom and Gloom:
The internal script we play in the background of our lives can either help or hinder us from living life to the fullest. If you struggle with anxiety, then you likely have a self-defeating, catastrophic voice playing on repeat (like a radio).
When our minds get stuck in a rigid place of negative thoughts, these thoughts can actually manifest into symptoms of anxiety! We may begin to feel hopeless, stressed, uncomfortable, helpless, or all of the above.
The “Doom and Gloom” radio metaphor from ACT works to quiet anxiety-inducing thoughts.
Imagine a radio that plays negative, pessimistic voice-overs all day long. You can try to ignore it, and even may succeed for bits at a time, however, you can’t mute it. This doom and gloom show is like our anxious minds.
No matter how hard we try, we simply can’t tune out that radio - meaning we’re less able to focus on things we really love.
With this technique, clients are encouraged to instead acknowledge what they’re hearing, thank our minds, and let it fade into the background. Instead of fighting it, which can deplete our energy tank, simply name your thoughts (Oh, here’s my ‘worst case scenario’ brain talking again!), let them pass by, and return to the activities that make our lives more meaningful.
Acceptance Is Key:
Anxiety is rooted in fear of the future or shame from the past. We either live life worried about what’s to come or beat ourselves up for mistakes we’ve previously made.
Through acceptance and commitment therapy, clients are encouraged and guided to become more present in their bodies and minds, empowering them to acknowledge their anxiety for what it is, rather than run away from it.
Once a client is able to master this skill, they can pair their present connection with a commitment to live a healthier, more positive lifestyle. Over time, anxiety will begin to fade away into the background. It may still be there, but you’ll be far more equipped to conquer it when it comes.