Learn / Build Resilience in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

Build Resilience in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

Kayla Gill
 March 8th, 2023|   Clinically Reviewed by 
Rajnandini Rathod

Do you constantly ruminate on negative thoughts, and then chastise yourself for thinking them? It’s easy to get stuck in that spiral. For a lot of people, acceptance and commitment therapy is the way out.

Rehabs with acceptance and commitment therapy teach you to be mindful of your thoughts instead of judging them. And that acceptance can be freeing. When you stop trying to “fix” your feelings, they might just guide you toward recovery.

What Is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)?

Acceptance and commitment therapy1 (or ACT, pronounced like the word “act”) is a behavioral treatment. It can treat a range of mental health conditions, including addiction. ACT centers on the idea that unwanted thoughts and emotions are an inevitable part of life.

In this approach, you’ll learn that your feelings are not inherently problematic. But the act of avoiding unpleasant thoughts and feelings can cause serious issues.2 Treatment helps you accept unwanted emotions. And that gives you room to re-engage with the parts of life you value most.

Avoiding emotional pain can have negative consequences. For example, you might go out drinking to distract yourself from work or family stress. And if you just do that once, it’s not necessarily a big deal. But if you keep leaning on substances to avoid how you feel, it can quickly lead to addiction. ACT helps you notice your coping behaviors, and see if they’re working in your favor.

How Do ACT Sessions Work?

You can learn ACT techniques in one-on-one therapy, group therapy, or via telehealth. Like many other behavioral treatments, most ACT programs have a set number of sessions.2 These programs last an average of 8 weeks, but that can change based on your exact needs.

In a typical ACT session, your therapist will lead you through exercises and role playing scenarios. They might also use metaphors to help you see your life from a new perspective. Because ACT is a behavioral therapy, it focuses on teaching you practical skills. Then, you can use those skills to make meaningful changes in the rest of your life.

ACT for Addiction Recovery

ACT for addiction3 helps you accept your desire to use drugs or alcohol—without acting on it. Some other treatments, like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), teach you to work against these urges. But ACT has a different goal. Patients learn to live with their cravings, and use coping skills to tolerate them.

The lessons you learn in ACT can also help you navigate relapse. For many people, it can take more than one try to enter sustained recovery.4 ACT helps you accept the fact that healing isn’t linear. And that can make it easier to admit when you need help, and recommit to your own recovery.

Experts agree that ACT can effectively treat addiction.3 It can even help people recover from multiple addictions at a time. And it can help you heal from other mental health issues.

ACT for Mental Health

ACT is a transdiagnostic therapy, which means it works for many different conditions:5

  • Anxiety: Data shows that ACT reduces the symptoms of anxiety.
  • Chronic pain: ACT improves quality of life for people with chronic pain.
  • Depression: After ACT for depression, patients are less likely to have mental health relapses.

Because it’s so versatile, ACT might be a good choice for people with co-occurring disorders. That way, you can use the same approach to work toward all your recovery goals.

The Core Principles of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

ACT promotes psychological flexibility.3 In other words, it helps you find your flow, even as life presents you with challenges. You can use the 6 principles of ACT6 to respond in a way that honors your values.

During treatment, your clinician may or may not talk about these core principles. But either way, they’ll serve as the basis for your work in therapy. And because all these concepts support each other, you probably won’t go through them in a linear fashion. Instead, your therapist will bring them up organically.


You are not your thoughts. And your thoughts aren’t always facts. But what you think and feel can have a huge impact on your behavior. For instance, if you constantly tell yourself that treatment is too hard, you might start to skip therapy sessions. And then, it doesn’t matter if treatment is actually too hard. If you’re not attending therapy, then your therapist can’t help you heal.

To address this, ACT uses defusion to remove some of the power of your thoughts and feelings. You’ll learn how to look at your thoughts and feelings objectively, and not as intrinsic truths. This can help you accept what you feel and let it go, instead of allowing it to define you.


Acceptance is the ability to feel your feelings without trying to change them. In ACT, you learn how to approach emotions with curiosity instead of judgment. For example, you might get angry at a loved one during family therapy. And then, you might judge that feeling. You could feel ashamed of your own anger, or sad about what caused it. And while those feelings about your own anger are valid, they can quickly lead to a spiral.

Acceptance empowers you to hold space for yourself. If you get angry at a loved one, you can simply sit with that feeling. You don’t have to yell, and you don’t have to shut down your own emotional response. Instead, you can practice mindfulness, exploring how and why you might feel angry. And over time, you can work through that anger, release it, and move forward.

Contact With the Present Moment

Through ACT, you’ll learn to be more present in each moment. It’s all too easy to lose yourself in regret about the past or anxiety about the future. This therapy helps you stay grounded, so you can take action to improve what’s actually happening in your life.

To achieve that, you can learn any number of mindfulness techniques. For example, you could practice breathing exercises, or take up yoga. These skills invite you to engage with the world as it actually is, instead of how you fear it could be.

The Observing Self

This principle of ACT encourages self-awareness. You’ll learn to tell the difference between yourself, your thoughts, your feelings, and your actions.

This objectivity helps you develop self-compassion. For example, feeling bad doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. And by the same token, relapsing into addiction doesn’t define who you are. Objectivity lets you move through painful thoughts, feelings, and situations without giving up on yourself or your goals.


You’ll begin most ACT programs by defining your values.6 Your therapist will guide you through an exercise in which you identify your highest ideals. Then, you’ll write them down and refer to them throughout treatment. They may also change over time.

Once you define your values, you can start to plan around them. You can even do that during rehab. For instance, if you value creativity, you might try art therapy or music therapy.

Treatment is just the beginning. As time goes on, your core values can guide you through life. And you can lean on them when you make major decisions. So if you value spontaneity, you might turn down a 9-5 job. Or if you value physical fitness, you might make time to work out every day. There’s no wrong way to live your life. But in recovery, it’s important to build a life that feels meaningful—however you define it.

Committed Action

With this ACT principle, you’ll make and keep commitments to yourself. Typically these commitments are tied to your values. For example, if family is one of your core values, you might commit to cooking dinner for them twice a week.

These simple actions can help you develop confidence. And over time, they’ll build toward larger patterns of behavior. That way, you can improve your relationship with yourself while you work toward external goals.

ACT in Accordance With Your Values

ACT recognizes that your goals are unique. This treatment doesn’t try to change the way you think. And it doesn’t define recovery for you. Instead, ACT guides you gently toward your own values. With the skills you’ll learn in treatment, you can start building a life you love—on your own terms.

View our list of rehabs with ACT to learn about their pricing, housing, insurance options, and more.

Reviewed by Rajnandini Rathod

  1. Dindo L, Van Liew JR, Arch JJ. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: A Transdiagnostic Behavioral Intervention for Mental Health and Medical Conditions. Neurotherapeutics. 2017 Jul;14(3):546-553. doi: 10.1007/s13311-017-0521-3. PMID: 28271287; PMCID: PMC5509623. []
  2. Pohar, Ron, and Charlene Argáez. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Anxiety, and Depression: A Review of Clinical Effectiveness. Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technologies in Health, 2017. PubMed, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK525684/. [] []
  3. Osaji J, Ojimba C, Ahmed S. The Use of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in Substance Use Disorders: A Review of Literature. J Clin Med Res. 2020 Oct;12(10):629-633. doi: 10.14740/jocmr4311. Epub 2020 Sep 21. PMID: 33029268; PMCID: PMC7524566. [] [] []
  4. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “Reducing Relapse Risk.” Whole Health Library. https://www.va.gov/WHOLEHEALTHLIBRARY/tools/reducing-relapse-risk.asp []
  5. Na, Euihyeon. “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Addiction.” Korean Academy of Addiction Psychiatry, vol. 25, no. 1, p. 3. www.academia.edu, https://www.academia.edu/19527124/Acceptance_and_Commitment_Therapy_for_Addiction. Accessed 8 Mar. 2023. []
  6. Zhang CQ, Leeming E, Smith P, Chung PK, Hagger MS, Hayes SC. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Health Behavior Change: A Contextually-Driven Approach. Front Psychol. 2018 Jan 11;8:2350. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.02350. PMID: 29375451; PMCID: PMC5769281. [] []

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