What Is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)?

woman in act therapy session

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT, can be a valuable part of an addiction treatment program. The focus of this therapeutic approach is to help people develop a flexible mindset. ACT is under the umbrella of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), developed in the 1980s.

What Is Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy?

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a widely used therapeutic approach focusing on the relationship between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. It’s based on the idea that our thoughts can affect how we feel emotionally and behave. CBT aims to help individuals identify negative thought patterns or cognitive distortions and replace them with healthier, more constructive ways of thinking.

In CBT, therapists work collaboratively with individuals to target specific issues or problems by exploring thought patterns and behaviors that contribute to those issues. The process involves:

  • Identification: Recognizing negative or distorted thoughts and understanding how they influence feelings and behaviors.
  • Challenge: Evaluating the accuracy and validity of these thoughts and considering alternative perspectives.
  • Restructuring: Developing new, more balanced thought patterns and beliefs through evidence-based techniques.
  • Behavioral Strategies: Implementing behavioral changes based on these revised thoughts and beliefs to foster healthier responses and coping mechanisms.

CBT is effective for various mental health concerns, such as anxiety disorders, depression, phobias, PTSD, and more. Its structured, goal-oriented nature often leads to relatively short-term treatment compared to other therapeutic approaches. CBT techniques can be adapted and applied in self-help settings or combined with other therapies for more comprehensive treatment plans.

How Does Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Work?

The overall goal of ACT is to help people gain psychological flexibility, which means being adaptable, open, and practical when facing difficult emotions or thoughts. Some of the main processes and components of this type of therapy include:


The objective of mindfulness is to become more aware of the present moment, promoting an accepting stance towards thoughts and feelings without judgment. Different mindfulness exercises may be included in ACT sessions to help people observe thoughts and emotions without becoming overwhelmed. This helps to create more open, accepting relationships with your internal experiences.


When participating in ACT, this component is about acknowledging and making room for unpleasant thoughts and emotions instead of trying to suppress or control them. A client in ACT can learn to accept their internal experiences and their reality, with the recognition that specific thoughts and feelings are a natural part of being human. Emotional resilience can be increased through the acceptance aspect of ACT.

Cognitive Defusion

With cognitive defusion, people can detach from non-helpful thoughts; rather than seeing them as a set truth, they can view them as a passing mental event. Specific techniques are used to deal with thoughts so they can be viewed more objectively, shifting the relationship someone has with their thoughts. This can then reduce the impact on emotional and behavioral well-being.

Clarifying Values

This part of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy allows individuals to identify and clarify their values and what’s meaningful. Individuals can also explore their values in different parts of their lives, like work or relationships, using them to guide them in making choices and setting goals. Ultimately, this provides a sense of purpose and direction in the client’s life.

Committing to Action

This encourages individuals to take meaningful action based on their values. Individuals can set specific and realistic goals aligning with their values and then commit to the necessary steps to achieve them. Their larger goals can be broken down into smaller ones that are more attainable.

Other components of ACT include:

  • Fostering a stable sense of self that’s unchanging to observe thoughts and emotions.
  • Shifting focus from worrying about the past or the future and encouraging full engagement in the present.
  • Therapists use different exercises and interactive techniques to help individuals grasp and internalize critical principles.
  • The therapist in ACT has the role of providing understanding and empathy, fostering collaboration.

There’s also ongoing assessment and adaptation, where the therapist regularly assesses a client’s response to interventions and makes changes based on their needs and progress.

How Is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Helpful In Addiction Treatment?

Along with other treatment approaches, ACT can be beneficial for people struggling with addiction for many reasons, including:

  • It integrates techniques to help people be more mindful of their feelings, thoughts, and physical sensations related to addiction. With mindfulness, learning to observe cravings without taking immediate action is possible.
  • ACT encourages the acceptance of urges and cravings as normal, expected experiences, and this can help make it easier to resist them, as opposed to giving in to them when they’re seen as something to suppress or fear.
  • Being in recovery requires a shift towards creating a life of purpose and meaning. With ACT, forming a stronger connection with individual values is possible. This encourages making decisions that are in line with long-term goals.
  • Behavioral change is a key tenant of ACT, helping individuals achieve recovery goals.
  • For a lot of people, addiction develops because substance use becomes a coping mechanism for difficult or uncomfortable emotions. Through ACT, individuals are taught healthier ways to respond to challenging emotions. There’s a promotion of mindfulness and acceptance instead of avoidance.

What ACT does in addiction treatment is essential to give the tools to accept and respond more effectively to addiction challenges. It can be part of a comprehensive approach to substance abuse treatment, supporting the journey toward long-term recovery.

Final Thoughts

The core idea of ACT is that trying to control painful emotional or psychological experiences isn’t productive. Suppressing these feelings will only cause more distress, while ACT believes there are valid ways to change your thoughts, including mindfulness, attention to personal values, and committing to action. Individuals can gradually change their attitudes and shift their emotional states by taking the steps to change their behavior while also learning to accept mental experiences.

ACT is one of many therapeutic approaches we use at San Diego Detox to provide the best possible care for each client individually. Contact our team to learn more about our addiction treatment programs, or take your first step toward recovery.