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ACT vs CBT: A Comprehensive Guide to Your Therapy Options

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This article will help you better understand the differences between ACT vs CBT therapy, their effectiveness in treating various mental health conditions, and considerations for choosing the most suitable approach based on your individual needs and personal preferences.

Introduction

Several forms of psychotherapy can be used to address mental health disorders. Some of the most popular include CBT and ACT therapy. Both of these can help treat things like depression, anxiety, addiction, or trauma. It’s important that you find the right type of therapy for your situation when seeking mental health treatment.

CBT and ACT Therapy

When considering ACT vs CBT therapy, it is important to note that both have evidence to substantiate their effectiveness, and they can be used together to address multiple areas of your life. CBT and ACT can both be used to provide short-term therapy, but ACT can also be long-term. CBT and ACT therapy can both be used to treat:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Personality disorders
  • Depression
  • Trauma
  • Insomnia
  • Addiction
  • Chronic pain
  • Eating disorders
young man talking about his problems during psychological therapy session

CBT

Principles of CBT

CBT is a short-term form of therapy based on the principle that most events that happen in life can cause problems because of how we interpret them. The way individuals think about situations or circumstances can directly impact how those situations feel. 

For example, individuals who always anticipate the worst outcome are more likely to be cautious and see a single change in plan or unexpected problem as indicative of more problems. But this kind of thinking can hold people back from enjoying themselves, feeling fulfilled and happy with their experiences.

CBT is best for those who have a short-term issue with which they want help. With CBT, a specific issue can be addressed. 

Techniques and Goals

CBT focuses on identifying habitual, negative, automatic thoughts like “everything is going to go wrong” and replacing them with more mindful, rational, and positive thoughts. 

Changing automatic thoughts can directly change emotions and behaviors. This treatment involves a lot of homework, so clients will be tasked with regular work, skills practice, and journaling to identify automatic negative thoughts. 

This is a very goal-oriented treatment, so sessions can last several weeks or months with multiple goals for each. 

You might work with a therapist to:

  • Identify problems or issues you want to overcome,
  • Become aware of the negative thought patterns you have,
  • Identify how you can change your thought patterns and reshape how you feel.

ACT

Principles of ACT 

Is ACT a form of CBT? Not necessarily. One difference between CBT and ACT is that ACT is a mindfulness therapy that helps you build a life that aligns with your motivations and values. 

ACT is best for those who would normally avoid problems in their lives. With ACT, clients are encouraged to work on issues directly and accept the feelings that might come from them, even if they are negative. This is a much better way of dealing with problems in life compared to covering them up and not addressing them.

The strategies used in this type of treatment help you accept your reality and accept your thoughts, even if they are unpleasant.

ACT Techniques and Goals

CBT and ACT might seem similar at face value, but ACT uses different techniques to teach you to be more aware of your thoughts, to be interested in them, and to accept them. 

You might work with a therapist to:

  • Say difficult thoughts or emotions out loud over and over until they no longer have power over you.
  • You might learn how to develop a relationship with things like anxiety or depression rather than try to fight those things.
  • You might learn to recognize your thoughts as thoughts, not realities.

For example:

A client might automatically think that no one likes them. So, when they hear about people going to a bar after work or seeing a show together, they might assume they weren’t invited because no one likes them. But using ACT techniques, that individual would learn to put the words “ I notice I’m having the thought” in front of their automatic thoughts so that “no one likes me” becomes “ I notice I’m having the thought that no one likes me.”

This technique helps put distance between thoughts and reality such that the same client when using the technique, feels an emotional distance from their automatic thought now and realizes that it’s just a thought and not necessarily reality.

ACT vs. CBT: Choosing the Right Treatment

When you seek mental health treatment, it is important to recognize that both forms of therapy are evidence-based practices that can create significant life changes. It’s up to you to find the approach that works best for your circumstances and situations, something that you can decide upon with the help of a mental health professional. 

young person with anxiety talking specialist

Key differences between ACT and CBT

  • CBT teaches you to reframe negative thought patterns, while ACT teaches you to accept negative feelings or situations as part of your life. 
  • ACT helps you focus on motivations and values when you accept the other challenges in your life, while CBT helps you identify things that need to be changed. 
  • CBT reduces symptoms, while in ACT, relief from symptoms is merely a side effect of ACT therapy.
  • In ACT, you have more homework and a hands-on role in your progress. 
  • ACT is an ongoing form of care that can be integrated into daily life, while CBT is a goal-oriented therapy designed to treat short-term, specific problems. 

When to Choose ACT

ACT can help you address mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety without resorting to medication. It can also help you change how you relate to your negative emotions so they don’t overtake you. While other clients may not be able to eliminate all medications, they can work toward reducing their dosage while treating mental health disorders or other physical conditions like chronic pain.

When to Choose CBT

CBT can help you identify and replace negative thought patterns with positive ones to alleviate any difficulties or challenges you may have caused yourself with those negative thoughts. Changing negative thoughts can also influence your emotional response to different situations, which can directly change your behavior. You can work with a therapist to focus on what is currently happening, what may have contributed to your current circumstance, and how you want to change your outlook in the future.

Summing up

Can ACT and CBT work together? Integration of ACT and CBT techniques can be very beneficial for some clients. For others, cbt and act therapy might be better when engaged separately. Choosing between act therapy vs. cbt is a highly personalized decision. Collaborating with a mental health professional to find personalized care is important.

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