ACT is one of the third generation of behavioural and cognitive therapies. Within this framework, the operant-behavioral generation came first followed by the cognitive-behavioural perspective. More recently a number of therapies, such as ACT, have promoted a more 'contextual' approach. In the same way that the cognitive-behavioural generation built on the operant-behavioral, so contextual approaches share features with both predecessors. But along with significant similarities there are also subtle but important differences. For example, rather than trying to alter the 'form' of thoughts, as traditional cognitive-behavioural approaches might advocate, contextual approaches are more interested in their 'function'.
Imagine the thought: 'I am worthless'. Both cognitive-behavioural and contextual approaches may notice a relationship between the occurrence of thought and certain behaviours. For instance the thought may co-exist with an individual being less social, comfort eating, even self-harming. Both approaches may attempt to address aspects of the thought, but perhaps in different ways.
Cognitive-behavioural approaches may see the 'form' of the thought as a problem. The thought may be labelled as negative or maladaptive and its content may be challenged or disputed. Part of therapy may involve altering the content of the thought from 'I am worthless' to 'I am not worthless'. Behind this work may be an assumption that if the original thought no longer occurred then it would no longer be able to influence behaviour.
Conversely, contextual approaches do not see thoughts as problematic as a result of their 'form' alone but as a result of their 'function'. Accordingly ACT would try to alter the function of the thought. In other words, rather than trying to stop the thought occurring or changing its content, ACT might try to change the relationship between the thought and behaviour. In the end, the thought 'I am worthless' might continue to occur but without resulting in the behaviours described above. In short, ACT interventions do not aim to stop difficult thoughts or feelings taking place but instead to foster a flexibility that allows individuals to both experience such events and to freely direct behaviour towards that which matters most.
Uploaded: December 1, 2011. Last edited: August 20, 2014
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