Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): practical exercises

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): practical exercises
(Last Updated On: December 25, 2020)

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy can be a perfect tool to gain insight into yourself and to find out how you unconsciously let yourself be guided by your own rules and thoughts in life. Your mind always knows best and often tells you what you should or should not do.

In the event that this leads to anxiety or depression, it is good to give your mind a little less influence and to act more according to your own feelings.

That requires some training. Your mind has had an increasing influence on you since childhood, and every day of your life, you have new experiences that determine your image of what is and what is not good. The exercises in ACT let you examine whether your rules of what is and what is not right, so what you and your environment must all meet.

Challenging exercises with a surprising effect

Practical exercises are central to ACT. These are extraordinary exercises that will sometimes surprise you. Even though you do not see the usefulness of some activities, it is essential that you do them, because they are indeed useful. The challenge is to get over your resistance, and at the end of the process, you will think back and know that these exercises have also helped you.

Not all exercises that are done at ACT are covered. The therapy is too extensive for that, and for those who start it, there must, of course, remain a surprise element. For the exercises that are discussed, it is important that you not only read them through but also really have to do them!

Always want to keep control

An exercise that is done at the very beginning of ACT is making a personal law book. You buy a small notebook that always goes in your back pocket or handbag. This is important so that you can write everything down at the moment that it falls to you. It is precisely outside the home that you often come across situations that require a note, but you also keep your booklet indoors. Also, make sure you always have a pen with you. This book is yours, and nobody needs to read this. It goes like this:

Unconsciously you set yourself several rules in life. The intention is to write down every time you have to stick to a state of yourself. Then you create your laws and regulations booklet.

Examples of rules for yourself are:

  • I have to be slim
  • What do you want from yourself?
  • I have to be helpful
  • I can’t be selfish
  • I have to look well-groomed
  • I can’t be late
  • my hair cannot get wet in the rain
  • I have to work out tonight
  • I have to cook healthy
  • I have to call my mother every week
  • I have to sleep long enough
  • I can’t get sick
  • I have to brush my teeth twice a day
  • I can’t be weak
  • I have to be fun at a party
  • I can’t cry, etcetera

For example, there are many rules that you set for yourself and that you can all note down. These are your rules of life. For instance, do this every day for two weeks. Do you notice how many rules you must follow? Read them all through. Do you see that in many cases, they contradict each other? For example, you may not be sick, but you must also take good care of yourself. If you do go to work when you have the flu because you cannot be sick, do you take good care of yourself?

This exercise is meant to make you aware of how strict you are for yourself and that it is not possible at all to stick to all your rules, as they often cannot be combined.

The next exercise is to keep a schedule of annoying situations, experiences, or feelings. You create a column in which you always describe the unpleasant situation. Next to it, you make a column that shows how you tried to control this situation. This is followed by a column with the effect this had in the short term and then a column with the effect in the long term. Finally, there will be a column in which you describe what this strategy has cost you or delivered.

An example:

unpleasant experience / feeling strategy to control this experience / feeling short-term effect long-term effect what did it cost / deliver me?
a party where I had to go alone and feel stupid being overly sociable, drinking alcohol, making me appear nicer I kept it up, felt a bit uncomfortable I felt stupid the next day, why can’t I be myself and enjoy myself? It took me one evening to relax when I could enjoy a party, but I’m proud that I went anyway

Insight and acceptance

We all know feelings of fear. Every person has them; that’s how evolution is determined. Even though we no longer come across wild lions that can tear us apart and we all have a safe roof over our heads, our internal alarm system still functions the same as that of ancient man. Only that alarm system has only two positions: danger and not a danger. Your alarm system will not care that a missed deadline at work is less life-threatening than a wild lion.

The stress response, such as faster breathing and an accelerated heartbeat and all associated substances that are released into the body, such as adrenaline and cortisol, has remained exactly the same in evolution. The problem is that the number of stress factors in life has increased enormously. News on television or the internet, mobile phone, traffic jams on the roads,

A straightforward exercise that helps you with anxious thoughts is that of the beast and the canyon. Imagine that you are on one side of a deep gap and your biggest fear (for example, getting cancer) on the other, in the form of a monster. Each of you has one end of a rope in your hands, and you are tugging to let the other fall into the canyon.

But the harder you pull, the harder the monster pulls back. So the more attention you give to your fear, the stronger this fear becomes. When you let go of the rope, all the resistance of the rope disappears, and you are released from your fear. Therefore, try to let go of your fear and let it be for what it is. He may be there, but it will remain on the other side of the gap.

An exercise to gain insight into the difference between pain and suffering is to draw a large circle with a small circle in the middle.

The small circle represents pain, fill in here, for an example: sleeping problems. The big circle stands for suffering; here, you can fill in things like worrying at night, less concentration, less desire to meet up with friends, being tired during the day, etc. Another example: the pain consists of chronic pain complaints.

The suffering includes being afraid of losing your work, not being able to meet up with friends, always going to bed early, being cranky. In this way, you see that the actual pain is something other than the suffering that results from it. The pain is a given; the suffering is something that you can influence yourself through your thoughts about it.

Another exercise in learning to accept is breaking your own rules.

Grab your rulebook and find a few rules that you will break very rowdy. You can start very small, by being 5 minutes late or by going to bed half an hour later. You can leave the house without brushing your teeth, eat unhealthy things for a whole day, or walk through the rain without an umbrella.

Your rules can be handy, and you do not have to abolish them. But by breaking a few, you will see that the world does not perish, and you create more space for yourself. Maybe you are sometimes unnecessarily strict, and you notice that things can be done differently.

Your mind, the little voice in your head called ‘conscience.’

You probably know the story of Pinocchio. Japie Krekel is given the critical task of shaping his conscience since Pinocchio is a wooden doll. That’s how it works with us. Our mind, or our conscience, continually tells us what to do. Or it asks questions before you start doing something, for example: “Is that wise?” It is always busy weighing what is and what is not

Good is. Even to the extent that it can be an obstacle. One way to gain insight into this is to name your mind. Do not think that you are going to get two personalities that way; your account will continue to belong to you. Give it the name of a person who is not too close to you, but you are moderately positive about, for example, an actress or a writer.

And every time you notice that you hear that little voice again that makes you doubt, make up your disaster scenarios or worry, you say to that mind: “(name the name), thank you for advising me, but I now make my own decision.” In this way, you give your thoughts less influence, and you do things according to your feelings. Be grateful for your advice; it can be beneficial,

You can also let your thoughts have less influence by doing defusion exercises. This means that you create a discrepancy between what you think and what you do. Thoughts are almost always words in your head, and through defusion, you start to rid words of their meaning, and you will realize that these are only words that we have come up with ourselves and not reality.

Say the word “milk.” For three consecutive minutes. What do you think about the word after three minutes? Do you still have the image of the white, creamy drink and its taste in mind? Or does the word lose meaning after repeating it so often in succession? You can do this in front of the mirror, with a sentence such as: “I am weak.” It helps even more when you make crazy faces during these three minutes as you speak the words. Or talk to yourself in an extraordinary voice. It has to be out loud, and you have to keep it up for three minutes. If you only do the exercise in your head, then it doesn’t work.

The opinions of yourself and those of your environment

The next exercise is called So you think you can dance?

 Suppose you have all kinds of dreams and things that you want to do in life, but you see a lot of obstacles standing in the way. You would prefer to dance through life, without always being held back by reasons why it would be impossible.

But there is a problem; you do your dance on the dance floor, but there is a strict three-person jury on the side. The one thinks you are dancing too freely; the other wants to see more different elements, and the third person says that your style is not to his taste. While you only want to enjoy freestyling! The votes of the jury can be compared to the voices in your head, which always have an opinion on everything.

Then there is a large audience behind the panel that cheers or shouts laugh or complains. This audience is comparable to the people in your immediate environment, who always have an opinion about your choices. And then there are the voters at home, who all have their opinions and judgments. You can compare this with the general ideas and judgments of society. If you want to take into account all these opinions and experiences, you will have to stand still because it will not work while dancing.

And then all opinions are different. Your mind will ask you if you think you can dance. And you can try very hard to convince your account that it is. But you can also continue dancing and do your own thing. Because if you should listen to everyone, you never do well and you better stop dancing altogether.

When you have time

After some time during ACT, you will notice that your worries will decrease, and you will recognize it sooner when your mind starts to take over again. Because you at least stop worrying and worrying earlier, you will start saving time and energy. It is almost unbelievable how much time and energy you as a person spend every day in doubting, avoidant behavior, or worrying about the future or the past. You can use this time nicely for mindfulness, for example.

That makes you more aware of the here and now and of your sensations. It has a relaxing effect and can be used, for example, in the queue for the cash register. Instead of being annoyed by slow people in front of you, which only makes you more frustrated, try to feel good. Feel how your legs are anchored in the ground. Feel the energy that runs through your body. Feel your breathing. Before you know it, it is your turn and immediately less stressed.

You can make a list of your values ​​in life, the things that are important to you (for your feeling, not your mind). Then you come up with concrete actions and write down how you want to work towards these values. Make it easier for yourself by, for example, putting a book on the table as standard if you want to free up more time to read. If you want to finish something at home for your work seriously, then put on your work clothes.

In your lazy jogging pants, you have a lot more in mind that you want to relax on the couch, and in your neat suit, that is almost impossible. If you’re going to go running, put your running shoes in front of your bed and put on your sports clothes the night before. If you put them on immediately after getting up, there is little chance that you can take them off again without having started walking.

You can use all ACT techniques in your daily life.

Finally, two small tips can have a major effect. Replace in your sentences, both in your daily use of language and in your thoughts, the word ‘but’ by everything ‘and.’ You will see that things do not always have to exclude each other. And replace the word ‘must’ with ‘can’ or ‘want.’ These are small nuances that make a big difference in the possibilities that you see for yourself.

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