The New Anxiety Therapy That’s All About Accepting Your Fears
A new kind of counseling is changing how people get help — and it’s working
When Brenda Hurwood was in her thirties, she had an accident that left her with a partial disability: She worked in home care support with elderly patients, and she injured her shoulder and neck while helping a client get out of a chair.
The injury left her with decreased stamina and constant pain, Hurwood says, and she found it difficult to continue working. “It eroded away my self-confidence as a person,” she says.
Hurwood, 63, who lives in Nova Scotia, Canada, says she developed generalized anxiety disorder, which persisted for decades. She tried different forms of therapy and various medications, but nothing worked — until 15 years ago, when a therapist introduced her to acceptance and commitment therapy.
ACT (pronounced like “act”) is a relatively new form of therapy centered on accepting that pain and suffering are an inevitable part of life, and using that acceptance to manage negative thoughts and feelings. In addition to anxiety, it’s been used as a treatment for depression, chronic pain, anger, phobias, and a host of other issues.
Its primary conceit is that instead of trying to control or push away your negative emotions, you should focus on learning to live with them. For some people, more traditional ways of coping with those thoughts and feelings can have the opposite of their intended effect, says Jenna LeJeune, PhD, a therapist and ACT practitioner based in Portland, Oregon: “Paradoxically, the more we focus on trying to get rid of painful thoughts or feelings, the more those things become the center of our lives.”
Although ACT has technically been around for over 30 years — it was developed in the mid-1980s by psychologist Steven Hayes, PhD — it’s only in the last couple of decades or so that it’s begun to gain traction. Hayes’ book on the topic, Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life, was published in 2005.
“We’re not trying to make you have more positive thoughts or more rational thoughts. We’re trying to help people have a different relationship to their thoughts.”