February 15, 2023 By Leah Malone

Can Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) Help My Recovery?


There are a plethora of treatment approaches available to treat substance use disorder (SUD), mental health disorders, and trauma. Every treatment approach uses different strategies to encourage and transform behavior change. Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is one psychotherapy approach that has shown its effectiveness in treating a wide range of mental health conditions. It’s unique in that it emphasizes mindfulness. ACT can offer benefits to a person’s recovery journey. In this blog, we’ll discuss the principles and benefits ACT can provide in recovery.

What Is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)?

Often, mental and emotional distress occurs when an individual is resisting life experiences. In other words, an individual is fighting their circumstances, rather than working to live as best they can in their current life circumstances. ACT is an action-oriented psychotherapy designed to help individuals accept their thoughts and feelings. In turn, clients commit to behavior change. According to Neurotherapeutics, ACT:

“[B]egins with the fundamental understanding that pain, grief, loss, disappointment, illness, fear, and anxiety are inevitable features of human life. The goal of ACT is not elimination or suppression of these experiences. Rather, ACT emphasizes pursuit of valued life areas and directions, such as intimate relationships, meaningful work, and personal growth, in the face of these painful experiences.”

The journal further explains that emotional distress is largely due to experiential avoidance—defined as “the unwillingness to remain in contact with uncomfortable private events (e.g., thoughts, feelings, and physiological sensations) by escaping or avoiding these experiences in ways that have (long-term) negative consequences.”

Although avoidance seems to produce short-term relief, it can cause more severe consequences long term. Rather, psychological flexibility is an important antidote for experiential avoidance. Strengthening psychological flexibility is a core goal of ACT.

The Psychological Flexibility Model

Psychological flexibility is regarded as a fundamental aspect of health. According to the journal Clinical Psychology Review, psychological flexibility “refers to a number of dynamic processes that unfolded over time,” including how a person:

  • Adapts to fluctuating situation demands
  • Reconfigures mental resources
  • Shifts perspective
  • Balances competing desires, needs, and life domains

Revisiting the Neurotherapeutics journal mentioned earlier, in ACT, psychological flexibility is cultivated by strengthening the following six core processes:

#1. Being Present: Being mindful of thoughts, feelings, sensations, and behaviors, which can be especially important during times of high stress

#2. Self as Context: Keeping a broad and objective perspective of thoughts and emotions, rather than triggering avoidance behaviors during difficult experiences

#3. Values: Having a clear picture of one’s fundamental hopes, goals, and values

#4. Committed Action: Living life in accordance with personal hopes, goals, and values

#5. Acceptance: Accepting life as it unfolds, including unwanted feelings, by utilizing a course of action that aligns with personal values

#5. Cognitive Defusion: Stepping back from thoughts and emotions that interfere with valued actions by perceiving them as objective

Likewise, these six core processes can be most effectively addressed through mindfulness skills, including practicing radical acceptance, fostering objectivity, reducing judgment, and enabling curiosity and wonder. Once they’re practiced, these core processes can help a person exercise self-love and self-compassion in their daily life.

The Benefits of ACT

In reference to the six core processes of psychological flexibility, here are some specific examples of the benefits that ACT can pose for individuals in recovery:

Being Present

Presence in the moment helps individuals to live their lives as they unfold moment by moment. Individuals can experience the world more directly and develop behaviors that align with their core values. In recovery, being present is essential as it helps individuals to persevere beyond obstacles and keeps individuals focused on their main goal, whether it be general wellness or sobriety.

Self as Context

The ability to look at self as context is necessary for objectivity. It allows an individual to gain awareness of their experiences without attachment. In recovery, self as context is important for helping individuals move past the obstacles that are keeping them from instilling lasting change in their life.


Understanding one’s personal values is important for living in accordance with them. In recovery, identifying and working towards values helps individuals to be purposeful with their actions. They can feel confident in their ability to keep sobriety and healing a prioritized value in their life.

Committed Action

Motivation can be difficult. Committed action is essential because it keeps individuals on track to make lasting change happen in their life. This core process is comprised of skill building, exposure, and goal setting – all necessary to strengthen throughout recovery.


In the realm of recovery, learning to accept obstacles is crucial to sustaining recovery. Without acceptance in one’s relapse prevention toolbelt, individuals can quickly fall back into patterns of substance use. This may be an attempt to self-medicate the stress. Acceptance also helps individuals in recovery to embrace their past without avoiding it. They can use it as motivation to be better in the future.

Cognitive Defusion

Practicing cognitive defusion strengthens one’s ability to notice their thoughts rather than feel consumed by them. In recovery, cognitive defusion can help one decrease their attachment to substance use triggers, cravings, and other symptom triggers as they arise throughout one’s healing journey

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is an action-oriented psychotherapy approach designed to strengthen a client’s psychological flexibility. Simply put, psychological flexibility is an individual’s ability to adapt, shift, and balance personal change in a way that leads one to live in accordance with their beliefs, values, and goals. ACT utilizes six elements to instill psychological flexibility: acceptance, cognitive defusion, being present, self as context, values, and committed action. Emerge Recovery utilizes ACT, in addition to numerous other psychotherapeutic approaches, in our treatment programs. Graduates of Emerge can move into our Grace Recovery transitional homes as they adjust to life’s demands. If you or a loved one is seeking mental health or addiction recovery treatment or support, call (737) 237-9663 today.

About Author

Leah Malone

Learning to sit with uncomfortable feelings can be painful and disturbing at times. When Leah was able to see her behavior patterns and decided there was enough pain to be disturbed, she became motivated to make changes and accept the work that needed to be done to heal. She needed direction and had no clue how to heal on her own. Through a connection with God, authentic connection with others, honesty, willingness, and humility, Leah is now in recovery from addiction and trauma.

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