Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Addiction

Written by Steve Rose

Steve Rose, PhD, is an addiction counsellor and former academic researcher, committed to conveying complex topics in simple language.

In recent years, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) has emerged as a promising and empirically supported approach to treating addiction. Developed in the late 1980s by psychologist Steven C. Hayes, ACT is a mindfulness-based, behavioral therapy that emphasizes psychological flexibility and a values-driven life. The primary goal of ACT is to help individuals develop skills to better handle difficult thoughts and emotions, leading to a more fulfilling and meaningful life.

This article aims to provide a comprehensive guide to using ACT for addiction treatment. By discussing the application of ACT and outlining its core principles, this guide will serve as a valuable resource for mental health practitioners, individuals struggling with addiction, and their loved ones. With a focus on the theoretical framework, intervention strategies, and overcoming common challenges, this article will provide the necessary tools to effectively implement ACT in addiction treatment and support recovery.

Understanding Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

Theoretical framework

  1. The role of psychological flexibility

Psychological flexibility is the central concept in ACT, which refers to an individual’s ability to adapt to changing circumstances, tolerate distress, and engage in values-based actions. It is the capacity to be fully present and aware of one’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences without becoming excessively attached or avoiding them. In the context of addiction, psychological flexibility allows individuals to better manage cravings, triggers, and negative emotions, ultimately promoting healthier choices and more adaptive behaviors.

  1. The Hexaflex model

The Hexaflex model is a graphical representation of the six interconnected core processes that underpin psychological flexibility in ACT. This model serves as a roadmap for the application of ACT, illustrating how the six processes work together to support individuals in developing greater psychological flexibility and overcoming challenges associated with addiction.

Six core processes of ACT

  1. Acceptance

Acceptance involves fully experiencing and embracing one’s thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations without trying to avoid or suppress them. In addiction treatment, this means acknowledging cravings, uncomfortable emotions, and past experiences related to substance use without judgment or resistance.

  1. Cognitive defusion

Cognitive defusion refers to the process of distancing oneself from thoughts, beliefs, and emotions, thereby reducing their impact and influence over one’s behavior. This allows individuals struggling with addiction to recognize that thoughts and feelings are transient experiences, rather than absolute truths or directives to act upon.

  1. Being present

Being present involves cultivating non-judgmental awareness of one’s internal and external experiences in the present moment. Mindfulness practices help individuals develop the ability to focus on the here and now, instead of being consumed by past regrets or future worries. This skill is particularly important in addiction treatment, as it enables individuals to effectively manage cravings and triggers.

  1. Self-as-context

Self-as-context is the ability to observe one’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences from a detached perspective, recognizing that the self is not defined by these experiences. This process allows individuals to develop a sense of self that is separate from their addiction, fostering self-compassion and resilience in recovery.

  1. Values

Values are the deeply held principles that guide an individual’s actions and decisions. In ACT, identifying and clarifying one’s values is crucial for motivating change and fostering a sense of purpose in recovery. By aligning their actions with their values, individuals can create a more meaningful and fulfilling life without the need for addictive substances or behaviors.

  1. Committed action

Committed action involves setting achievable goals and taking concrete steps to pursue one’s values. This process helps individuals struggling with addiction to develop new, adaptive behaviors and coping strategies, ultimately supporting their long-term recovery.

ACT and addiction

ACT’s emphasis on psychological flexibility and values-based living makes it particularly well-suited for addiction treatment. By targeting the underlying cognitive and emotional processes that contribute to addictive behaviors, ACT helps individuals develop the skills necessary to manage cravings, tolerate distress, and pursue a more meaningful life. Additionally, ACT’s focus on acceptance, mindfulness, and self-compassion fosters a non-judgmental and compassionate approach to recovery, which can reduce shame and stigma associated with addiction.

A growing body of research supports the use of ACT in addiction treatment. Numerous studies have shown that ACT can effectively reduce substance use, improve psychological well-being, and increase treatment retention. Furthermore, ACT has been found to be effective across a range of addictive behaviors, including alcohol and drug addiction, smoking cessation, and gambling disorder. These findings highlight the potential of ACT as a valuable intervention for individuals struggling with addiction.

Implementing Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Addiction

Identifying and understanding triggers

    The first step in implementing ACT for addiction involves assessing and understanding the individual’s triggers for addictive behaviors. These triggers can include internal factors, such as thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations, as well as external factors, such as social situations, environmental cues, or specific people. By identifying these triggers, both the therapist and the individual can gain a clearer understanding of the factors that contribute to their addictive behaviors and develop targeted strategies to address them.

    Exploring personal values and life goals

    Next, the therapist and individual work together to explore the person’s core values and life goals. This process often involves a series of conversations and exercises designed to help the individual reflect on their values, priorities, and aspirations. By gaining a deeper understanding of what truly matters to them, individuals can begin to envision a life without addiction and identify the values-based actions necessary to achieve their goals.

    Acceptance techniques

    a. Willingness and openness

    One of the key aspects of acceptance in ACT is cultivating an attitude of willingness and openness to experience uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. Instead of trying to control or avoid these experiences, individuals learn to allow them to be present without judgment or resistance. Therapists can guide individuals through various experiential exercises, such as mindful breathing or body scanning, to help them develop this attitude of willingness and openness. By fostering an accepting stance toward their internal experiences, individuals can better manage their cravings and urges without resorting to addictive behaviors.

    b. Urge surfing

    Urge surfing is a mindfulness-based technique that can be particularly useful for managing cravings in addiction treatment. It involves observing and riding out the wave of an urge or craving without giving in to it. The individual learns to recognize that cravings are temporary, and they can pass without the need for engaging in addictive behaviors. To practice urge surfing, the therapist may guide the individual through a series of steps, such as:

    1. Noticing the craving or urge as it arises.
    2. Observing the sensations, thoughts, and emotions associated with the craving without judgment or resistance.
    3. Mindfully breathing and focusing on the breath as the craving intensifies and eventually subsides.
    4. Reflecting on the experience and the individual’s ability to tolerate the craving without giving in to it.

    By mastering the art of urge surfing, individuals can gain confidence in their ability to handle cravings and resist the temptation to engage in addictive behaviors.

    Cognitive defusion techniques

    a. Labeling thoughts

    A common cognitive defusion technique involves labeling thoughts as they arise, helping individuals to detach themselves from the content of the thought and recognize it as a mental event rather than a reality or truth. For example, instead of getting caught up in the thought, “I need a drink,” the individual may learn to label it as “the craving thought” or “the urge to drink.” This process can help create distance between the individual and their thoughts, reducing the influence these thoughts have on their behavior.

    b. Metaphors and experiential exercises

    ACT therapists often use metaphors and experiential exercises to help individuals gain a deeper understanding of cognitive defusion. For example, the therapist may ask the individual to imagine their thoughts as leaves floating down a stream, clouds passing by in the sky, or cars driving by on a busy highway. By engaging in these exercises, individuals can learn to observe their thoughts from a distance, without becoming entangled in them or allowing them to dictate their actions.

    Mindfulness and being present

    a. Mindfulness exercises

    Mindfulness exercises, such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or guided imagery, can be employed to help individuals develop the ability to be fully present and non-judgmentally aware of their internal and external experiences. These exercises teach individuals to focus their attention on the present moment and observe their thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations without judgment or resistance. By practicing mindfulness regularly, individuals can enhance their ability to tolerate distress and cope with cravings and triggers more effectively.

    b. Techniques for enhancing present moment awareness

    In addition to formal mindfulness exercises, therapists may introduce various techniques for enhancing present moment awareness in daily life. These can include:

    1. Encouraging individuals to engage in mindful activities, such as walking, eating, or washing dishes, with full attention and awareness.
    2. Suggesting the use of grounding techniques, such as focusing on the breath or engaging the senses, to bring the individual’s attention back to the present moment when they find themselves lost in thought or overwhelmed by emotions.
    3. Incorporating brief mindfulness check-ins throughout the day, where the individual pauses to observe their thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations without judgment.

    By integrating these techniques into their daily lives, individuals can cultivate a greater sense of presence and awareness, which can support their recovery from addiction.

    Developing self-as-context

    a. Perspective-taking exercises

    Perspective-taking exercises can help individuals develop a sense of self that is separate from their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. These exercises may involve guided imagery, role-playing, or written reflections, where the individual is encouraged to adopt different perspectives and explore their experiences from a detached standpoint. For example, the therapist may ask the individual to imagine observing their thoughts and emotions from the perspective of a compassionate observer, a curious scientist, or a wise mentor. Through these exercises, individuals can learn to view their experiences as temporary and separate from their core self, fostering self-compassion and resilience in recovery.

    b. Self-compassion

    Self-compassion is an essential component of self-as-context, as it involves recognizing and accepting one’s imperfections and struggles without self-judgment or criticism. Therapists can help individuals cultivate self-compassion by encouraging them to treat themselves with kindness, understanding, and care, just as they would treat a dear friend or family member. This may involve guiding individuals through self-compassion meditations, journaling exercises, or simply reminding them to practice self-kindness in their daily lives. By developing self-compassion, individuals can foster a healthier relationship with themselves and better navigate the challenges of recovery from addiction.

    Values clarification and goal setting

    a. Identifying and prioritizing values

    In the context of addiction treatment, clarifying one’s values is a crucial step in motivating change and fostering a sense of purpose in recovery. Therapists can support individuals in identifying and prioritizing their values by guiding them through a series of reflective exercises, such as creating a values hierarchy, writing a personal mission statement, or discussing their ideal future self. By gaining clarity on their most deeply held values, individuals can develop a strong foundation for making values-based decisions and pursuing a more meaningful and fulfilling life.

    b. Establishing achievable goals

    Once an individual has clarified their values, the therapist can help them set achievable goals that align with these values. This may involve breaking down larger, long-term goals into smaller, more manageable steps, and identifying specific actions the individual can take to work towards these goals. By establishing clear, values-based goals, individuals can create a roadmap for their recovery journey and maintain a sense of direction and purpose in their lives.

    Committed action

    a. Developing a personalized action plan

    With their values and goals in mind, individuals can work with their therapist to develop a personalized action plan for recovery. This plan should outline the specific steps the individual will take to pursue their values and goals, as well as any strategies and resources they will use to cope with challenges and setbacks along the way. The action plan may include a combination of practical tasks, such as attending support group meetings or establishing a daily routine, and psychological strategies, such as practicing mindfulness or engaging in self-compassion exercises.

    b. Monitoring progress and adjusting the plan

    As individuals begin to implement their action plan, it is essential to regularly monitor their progress and make adjustments as needed. The therapist and individual can work together to evaluate the effectiveness of the strategies being used and identify any barriers or challenges that may be impeding progress. By maintaining open communication and a collaborative approach, the therapist can support the individual in adapting their plan and overcoming obstacles on their path to recovery.

    c. Building accountability and support systems

    A crucial aspect of committed action is building a strong support system and fostering a sense of accountability in the individual’s recovery journey. This can involve engaging family members, friends, or support group members to provide encouragement, understanding, and practical assistance. Additionally, the therapist may help the individual identify external sources of accountability, such as regular check-ins with a sponsor or participation in a formal recovery program. By cultivating a network of support and accountability, individuals can bolster their motivation and resilience in the face of challenges, ultimately enhancing their chances of long-term recovery success.

    Overcoming Challenges in ACT for Addiction

    Common challenges

    1. Resistance to acceptance

    One common challenge in implementing ACT for addiction is the individual’s resistance to acceptance, particularly when it comes to accepting uncomfortable thoughts, emotions, and cravings. This resistance may stem from a natural inclination to avoid or suppress negative experiences, as well as from deeply ingrained beliefs about the need to control one’s emotions or thoughts.

    1. Difficulty engaging in mindfulness practices

    Some individuals may struggle with engaging in mindfulness practices, finding it challenging to focus their attention on the present moment or to observe their thoughts and emotions without judgment. This difficulty may be exacerbated by factors such as anxiety, past trauma, or a lack of prior experience with mindfulness techniques.

    1. Ambivalence towards change

    Another common challenge in ACT for addiction is ambivalence towards change. Individuals may be torn between their desire to overcome their addiction and the comfort of familiar behaviors. This ambivalence can manifest as resistance to therapy, reluctance to set goals, or difficulty committing to values-based actions.

    Strategies for overcoming challenges

    1. Psychoeducation and normalization

    To address resistance to acceptance and difficulties with mindfulness practices, therapists can provide psychoeducation on the rationale behind these concepts and normalize the challenges associated with them. By explaining the benefits of acceptance and mindfulness in the context of addiction recovery and acknowledging the difficulties that many individuals experience in practicing these skills, therapists can help alleviate resistance and foster a greater willingness to engage in ACT techniques.

    1. Building therapeutic rapport and alliance

    A strong therapeutic rapport and alliance are crucial for overcoming challenges and ambivalence in addiction treatment. By creating a safe, non-judgmental, and empathetic therapeutic environment, therapists can encourage open communication and promote trust between themselves and the individual. This rapport can be fostered through active listening, validation of the individual’s experiences and emotions, and a genuine interest in their well-being.

    1. Utilizing motivational interviewing techniques

    To address ambivalence towards change, therapists can integrate motivational interviewing techniques into their ACT approach. Motivational interviewing is a client-centered counseling method that focuses on exploring and resolving ambivalence to promote behavior change. By utilizing open-ended questions, affirmations, reflections, and summaries, therapists can help individuals explore their reasons for change, enhance their motivation, and resolve any ambivalence they may have towards recovery.

    Some motivational interviewing techniques that can be incorporated into ACT include:

    a. Eliciting change talk: Encourage the individual to express their reasons for wanting to change, the benefits they perceive in overcoming their addiction, and their values that support recovery.

    b. Rolling with resistance: When the individual expresses resistance or hesitancy towards change, therapists can adopt a non-confrontational approach, acknowledging the individual’s concerns and exploring the reasons behind their resistance.

    c. Developing discrepancy: Help the individual recognize the discrepancy between their current behaviors and their values or goals, emphasizing the importance of aligning their actions with their values to achieve a more fulfilling life.

    By integrating these strategies into the ACT approach, therapists can effectively address common challenges in addiction treatment, ultimately supporting individuals in their journey towards recovery and a values-driven life.

    Conclusion

    Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) offers a promising and evidence-based approach to addiction treatment, focusing on psychological flexibility, values-based living, and the cultivation of adaptive coping skills. By understanding the theoretical framework and core processes of ACT, mental health practitioners can effectively implement this therapy to address the unique challenges faced by individuals struggling with addiction. Overcoming common challenges, such as resistance to acceptance, difficulty engaging in mindfulness practices, and ambivalence towards change, is essential for successful treatment outcomes. By utilizing strategies like psychoeducation, building a strong therapeutic alliance, and incorporating motivational interviewing techniques, therapists can empower individuals to overcome these challenges and embark on a path towards lasting recovery and a more meaningful, fulfilling life.

    Fascinated by ideas? Check out my podcast:

    Struggling with an addiction?

    If you’re struggling with an addiction, it can be difficult to stop. Gaining short-term relief, at a long-term cost, you may start to wonder if it’s even worth it anymore. If you’re looking to make some changes, feel free to reach out. I offer individual addiction counselling to clients in the US and Canada. If you’re interested in learning more, you can send me a message here.

    Other Mental Health Resources

    If you are struggling with other mental health issues or are looking for a specialist near you, use the Psychology Today therapist directory here to find a practitioner who specializes in your area of concern.

    If you require a lower-cost option, you can check out BetterHelp.com. It is one of the most flexible forms of online counseling. Their main benefit is lower costs, high accessibility through their mobile app, and the ability to switch counselors quickly and easily, until you find the right fit.

    *As an affiliate partner with Better Help, I receive a referral fee if you purchase products or services through the links provided.

    As always, it is important to be critical when seeking help, since the quality of counselors are not consistent. If you are not feeling supported, it may be helpful to seek out another practitioner. I wrote an article on things to consider here.


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