Always Comparing? This Therapy May Free You From Anxiety & Toxic Thoughts

Contributing Health & Nutrition Editor By Stephanie Eckelkamp
Contributing Health & Nutrition Editor
Stephanie is a writer and editor who has been working for leading health publications for the past 10 years. She received her B.S. in journalism from Syracuse University with a minor in nutrition.

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As someone who's had anxious tendencies most of my life, I love to ask basically everyone I interview about their go-to tips, tricks, and exercises to alleviate those racing, toxic, worry-laden thoughts. And most people have something to share—after all, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults. Often, it's a breathing exercise, a supplement, or a dietary strategy, but recently, someone recommended a strategy I'd never heard of: acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).

When I was interviewing former reality star and current wellness entrepreneur Lo Bosworth about her go-to wellness habits, she cited ACT as her go-to approach for keeping anxious thoughts in check and keeping things in perspective—she prefers it to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is often considered the go-to treatment strategy for anxiety disorders.

"With CBT, it's about replacing your anxious thoughts with a different thought, but through my experience, I find that you're really just suppressing whatever it is that you feel uncomfortable about," Bosworth told mbg. "I'm more of a subscriber to ACT therapy, which is acceptance therapy. So when you're feeling uncomfortable, you really have to go back to the place of 'this is who I am' and 'this is normal.' It's been really helpful for me, more than anything else, because I'm not trying to force these uncomfortable thoughts and feelings out of my body. I'm just accepting them and living with them, and when you do that, it becomes a lot easier."

Bosworth told me she personally uses this ACT Therapy Workbook to practice these strategies, but loads of therapists are trained in this approach as well. 

Intrigued? Here, we asked mental health experts to help explain exactly what ACT is, who can benefit, and what you can expect in an appointment.

What is acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)?

The theory behind ACT is that it's often ineffective and counterproductive to try to control painful emotions and psychological experiences—because this suppression often leads to more distress.

"ACT is a mindfulness-based form of therapy that emphasizes building acceptance to cope with life challenges, as well as anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues," says Ellie Cobb, Ph.D., holistic psychologist. "Through the lens of acceptance, one can learn to stop denying, fighting, or criticizing their own difficulties and can choose new adaptive actions and develop new positive self-talk."

ACT focuses on three key areas:

  • Acceptance: accepting your reactions to things and being present in the moment
  • Commitment: committing to stop fighting your emotions, and identifying your personal values and goals
  • Taking action: practicing more confident and optimistic behavior that's in line with your personal values and goals

According to psychotherapist Rachel Wright, LMFT, unlike CBT, the goal of ACT isn't to reduce the frequency or severity of unpleasant emotions or thoughts. Instead, the goal is to reduce your urge to suppress or control these experiences and increase your involvement in productive activities that are in line with your values and that will help you lead a more fulfilling life. Over time, this can lead to real change in your attitude and emotional state.

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What to expect in an ACT therapy session.

With ACT, a practitioner will teach you to start being aware of your thoughts, feelings, memories, and sensations that may have been previously stuffed down or avoided. Then, they will help you reframe them so they can be accepted and let go of (to the extent that they can be). The conversation would then most likely move on to your behavior patterns to ensure they're in line with your values.

Here, Wright shares an example of what this might look like:

"So let's say a person is suffering from serious anxiety due to comparisonitis. They're always comparing themselves to other people at work and on social media and just feeling down. The first thing we would do is dig up and acknowledge all of the thoughts and feelings surrounding this. So, what comes to mind when you're scrolling Instagram? What thoughts and feelings pop up when you see your co-worker get a promotion that you don't? Are there any memories from childhood or the past in general that contribute to these thoughts or feelings?

"Once we are able to bring those to light, we could reframe them. So, if the thought is, 'I suck and my co-worker Jen is so much better than me because she got the promotion,' then we would reframe it as, 'I am having a thought that I suck,' or 'I am feeling inadequate compared to Jen because she got a promotion.'

"From there, we'd look at if the client even wants this promotion or if it's more about the comparison piece, and depending on that, we'd come up with an action plan to temper the negative thoughts and feelings and get closer toward the outcome the client wants—based on their values."

How to get started and find a therapist.

While you can go the DIY route like Bosworth and use an ACT therapy workbook, nothing can truly replicate the experience you'd get with a mental health professional. There's no official ACT certification, but you can find practitioners who have received additional training in ACT. Wright recommends starting your search at ABCT.org, and ask the practitioner directly if they are trained in this form of therapy.

If you're not ready to reach out to a therapist just yet, Wright says that one of the most highly regarded books that both practitioners and clients can learn from is Russ Harris' ACT Made Simple: An Easy-To-Read Primer on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.

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