Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (or ACT) is a ‘new wave’ approach to treating a variety of psychological difficulties, including anxiety disorders. Although ACT is relatively new compared with more widely used therapies, it has been used and tested by psychologists for a number of decades and there is a great deal of empirical evidence to suggest that it is effective for producing positive changes in the lives of clients.
What is Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)?
GAD is one of the more common anxiety disorders experienced by Australians. A person may be experiencing GAD if they have been excessively and uncontrollably anxious or worried about a number of events or activities for at least six months. The anxiety or worry may be at a clinical level if it is associated with three or more of the following:
- Restlessness or agitation
- Being easily fatigued
- Difficulty concentrating or mind going blank
- Muscle tension
- Sleep disturbance
How common are anxiety disorders?
According to Beyond Blue, 33% of Australian women and around 20% of Australian men will experience an anxiety disorder during their lifetime.
How are anxiety disorders diagnosed?
If you believe you may be experiencing problems with anxiety, it is important to talk to your GP about your difficulties. The GP should conduct a comprehensive medical examination to ensure that another health problem is not causing the symptoms. The doctor may refer you to a mental health specialist, such as a psychologist, for further assessment and treatment.
What is ACT?
ACT involves the practice of mindful awareness of positive, neutral and negative experiences, both internal (thoughts and feelings) and external (behaviours and environmental stimuli).
This awareness is used to facilitate ‘defusion’ – the practice of creating space between the self and these experiences. Often anxious clients ‘fuse’ with distressing thoughts (e.g. ‘I am not competent’) and feelings (e.g. fear), which then contributes to the avoidance of anxiety-provoking activities that, though challenging, will lead to a more valued life (e.g. socialising, driving, going into crowded places).
The creation of this space enables clients to place less importance on upsetting thoughts, feelings and situations, which facilitates engagement in more valued living. When an anxious client can see that they are not their thoughts and feelings, they are more able to choose to act in accordance with their values, rather than what their mind or body is telling them.
How is ACT different to other approaches to treating anxiety?
Some other psychological therapy styles involve training in skills to evaluate the rationality of anxiety-provoking thoughts and feelings, and the development of more realistic thinking styles. Whilst these skills can also be very helpful, it is unrealistic to expect humans to be able to think rationally at all times, and sometimes the negativethoughts and feelings humans have are perfectly realistic and appropriate for the given circumstances.
For instance, an anxious client who is being bullied at work may think ‘I’ll never feel comfortable at work’ – this may in fact be a realistic thought. Evaluating it logically is unlikely to assist a client in feeling less anxious and having a richer and more meaningful life. However, enabling the client to realise that they can have that thought and still engage in meaningful and rich activities (e.g. attending work and performing well, or telling their boss they wish to quit) is often more empowering.
Another common approach to treating anxiety is medication. In many cases this is appropriate, as some people experience such high levels of anxiety that they are incapable of engaging in most activities, let alone attending therapy. Medication can be a helpful first step in facilitating treatment engagement in more severe cases. However, anxiety almost always develops through a combination of biological, psychological and social factors. Unless medication is used in conjunction with psychological therapies, only part of the problem is being addressed and full remission is unlikely to occur.
If you live in the Canberra region and feel that you may be suffering from problems with anxiety, you can contact Strategic Psychology to arrange to see one of our psychologists. We can assist you in identifying the issues that are causing and maintaining your difficulties and recommend strategies that draw on your strengths and passions in order to achieve optimal social, emotional and academic functioning.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5). Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association.
Beyond Blue. (2015). Anxiety and depression: An information booklet. Retrieved from the Beyond Blue website: http://resources.beyondblue.org.au/prism/file?token=BL/0885
Hayes, S. (2005). Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life. USA: New Harbinger Publications.