Though it’s a newer form of therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) has shown promising results for people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
PTSD is a mental health condition that affects the lives of tens of millions of people. In fact, roughly 13 million people in the United States experienced PTSD in 2020, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.
PTSD treatment often involves a combination of medication and therapy approaches, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and prolonged exposure therapy. In recent years, studies have also found that ACT can be an effective approach to improving the symptoms of PTSD.
Ahead, we’ll cover everything you need to know about ACT for PTSD, including what this therapy is, how effective it is for PTSD, and how to find a therapist who specializes in ACT.
ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy) is a type of therapy that targets experiential avoidance, which is when you avoid distressing, negative, or unwanted thoughts, feelings, and experiences. With ACT, you learn how to acknowledge and accept these thoughts, emotions, and experiences instead of avoiding them.
ACT is similar to CBT in some ways. For example, they’re both behavioral therapies that specifically target the behaviors that fuel someone’s symptoms. But CBT focuses on changing your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, while ACT focuses on learning to accept and live with them.
One of the reasons why ACT may help treat post-traumatic stress disorder is because it can help you develop psychological flexibility. This refers to the ability to be present and aware of your emotions.
According to mental health experts, ACT does this by improving your:
- mindfulness and connection to the present moment
- willingness to be open to all types of experiences
- connection to your personal life values
- commitment to act in a way that honors your values
- defusion (detachment) from your thoughts to reduce their effect
- observation of your life experience as a whole
By tackling these different areas, people with PTSD can learn how to accept the trauma of the past while living their personal life values in the present.
ACT is a newer therapeutic approach, so research on the role of ACT for PTSD is somewhat limited. However, recent research on the subject does suggest that this type of therapy may be an effective option for PTSD symptoms.
One smaller study from 2019 explored the effectiveness of both group and individual ACT among veterans living with PTSD. In this study, 10 veterans received 12 sessions of group ACT, while 9 veterans received 12 individual ACT sessions.
While both individual and group ACT led to an improvement in PTSD symptoms, the largest effect happened in the individual therapy group. Outside of symptom improvement, other benefits included increased mindfulness and increased psychological flexibility.
According to the study results, ACT significantly decreased PTSD symptoms, improved the quality of relationships, and led to better social and leisure engagement. In addition, the participants engaged in ACT showed significant improvements in mindfulness, valued living, and avoidance behaviors.
The results of the study found that in people with high post-traumatic stress symptoms, greater psychological flexibility led to greater post-traumatic growth. According to the researchers, this emphasizes the importance of therapy that improves psychological flexibility ― like ACT ― for trauma recovery.
If you’ve been exploring treatment options for your PTSD symptoms, you may have already thought about giving ACT a try. If you already have a therapist, consider asking them how you can incorporate ACT into your treatment plan.
But even if you’re not in treatment yet, it’s never too late to take that first step toward recovery. Here are a few resources you can check out to find an ACT therapist or specialist near you:
- SAMHSA Locator Tool
- ABCT Find a Therapist
- APA Psychologist Locator
- ADAA Therapist Directory
Because ACT is a newer form of therapy, it may be difficult to find a mental health professional near you who specializes in these techniques. If that’s the case, you can still ask your therapist to try out this style of therapy in your sessions.
ACT is a type of therapy that focuses on improving mindfulness and acceptance of unwanted thoughts, emotions, and experiences. Research suggests that ACT can be an effective approach for PTSD because it teaches people how to live alongside their past experiences, rather than avoid them.
If you have PTSD and would like to incorporate ACT into your treatment plan, consider reaching out to a therapist for more information on your treatment options.