Mental Health
ACT for Anxiety: Managing Anxiety Effectively Through Therapy

ACT for Anxiety: Managing Anxiety Effectively Through Therapy

9 min read


Guest Author

Anxiety is on the rise and among the most common mental health issues in the United States. It's estimated that 40 million adults have an anxiety disorder. That's 18.1% of the population. It is the most common mental health issue globally, and it's becoming more and more common in the U.S. specifically.

There are various reasons for this. For one, we live in a culture that emphasizes "getting ahead" and "winning" over other people at all costs, which can lead to a lot of stress, which can compound anxiety symptoms and other concerns like depression or substance abuse. Anxiety disorders are not only prevalent but severe. They can cause significant distress and impairment in functioning and they are often chronic, meaning they persist over time and are unlikely to improve without treatment.

What Is ACT?

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a type of therapy that helps people learn how to deal with their emotional experiences differently than they have in the past. Instead of pushing away negative thoughts or feelings, ACT teaches you how to accept them, so you can coexist with them without them controlling you or your life.

Psychologist Steven Hayes developed ACT in the 1980s, basing it on a theory that states our thoughts and emotions are connected. Those negative thoughts can lead us down a path of unhelpful behavior. It also suggests that we can use our minds to change the way we feel about things — for example, if we think about doing something in a certain way, this can influence how we act or respond when faced with a situation. This can then lead to more positive emotions and actions in the future.

According to this model of human behavior, our thoughts affect our feelings and actions, which impact our thoughts. The goal of ACT is, therefore, not just to change our thinking patterns, but to  also accept ourselves and our patterns, so that the relationship between our thoughts, behaviors, and self-esteem is more positive overall.

What Does ACT Say About Anxiety?

Anxiety often comes from trying to prevent something terrible from happening — getting fired from your job, failing an exam, or a relationship ending, for example – rather than moving through uncertainty with curiosity and acceptance. Anxiety is an attempt to regain control over what may be beyond our control, which can be painful and challenging. Sometimes, it is healthier to let go of the things that are outside of our realm of control. Gaining a calmer, more grounded sense of acceptance, and learning to differentiate between what to focus on and what to let go of, are things that ACT can help you learn.

Is ACT or CBT Better for Anxiety?  

There are two primary types of therapy that are often successfully used to treat anxiety: CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) and ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy). Both approaches can help you manage your symptoms, but they work differently.

Both CBT and ACT share many similarities and are effective treatments for anxiety disorders. However, there are some differences between them, including the way they deliver treatment.

CBT is based on the idea that our thoughts cause our feelings and actions. If we change our thoughts, we can change our feelings and actions. CBT focuses on helping people identify negative patterns in their thoughts (like worry or putting a lot of pressure on yourself). The thinking is that if you have a problem with anxiety or depression, your thoughts about it may be making matters worse, so if you change your thoughts, your symptoms will improve.

CBT helps you to identify negative thoughts and find ways to challenge them, so they have less power over you. For example, if you think that everyone is judging you because of how nervous or anxious you look, CBT might teach you different ways of thinking about this situation. It could also show you how to change the way you react to stressful situations.

ACT is based on a theory that there are two fundamental dimensions of human existence:

  • The first is experiencing the world through our senses (or thoughts and feelings)—what we might call "experiencing" or "being present."
  • The second dimension is valuing or choosing what's important to us.

ACT insists that our minds aren't always rational — we often make assumptions about ourselves or the world around us that aren't true (and may even be harmful). For example, if someone fears spiders, they may believe that spiders are dangerous creatures that could harm them anytime (even though, rationally or statistically speaking, spiders have bitten very few people).

Through ACT, therapists help people learn how to accept their fears and not get attached to specific outcomes to live a more peaceful and fulfilling life. The goal of ACT is to help people learn how to respond effectively when their anxiety triggers arise by focusing on what they want out of life rather than how they feel about specific events or situations.

How Does ACT Work?

ACT helps you reduce negative thoughts by helping you accept things that are out of your control while also focusing on what you can control (your actions). This allows you to see things as they are rather than through a filter of negativity or worry. It's based on the idea that our thoughts influence our feelings and behavior. So if we can change the way we think, we can change the way we feel and act.

Does ACT Help With Anxiety?

If you're a person who suffers from anxiety, you've likely tried several different strategies to treat it. You've probably gone through the same range of emotions that many people with anxiety go through:

  • Frustration over the lack of effective treatment options
  • Anger at yourself for not being able to "stop thinking about it”
  • Sadness when the things that used to give you joy start to feel overwhelming or exhausting

The good news is that there are effective treatments out there. One of them is called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). ACT helps people learn how to live with anxiety by changing their relationship with their thoughts and feelings to allow them to be present in the moment instead of being caught up in fear-based thinking patterns.

What Is the ACT Technique?

The ACT technique helps you see that there's more to who you are than just this moment of anxiety—and that there's more to your life than just one emotion at a time. The ACT technique uses six steps, which include:


Accepting your thoughts and feelings can be difficult because we often try to avoid things we don't like. For example, if you feel anxious about doing something new, you might try to avoid that feeling by telling yourself that it isn't essential or doesn't matter. But accepting these feelings as they are helps us move forward in our lives because it allows us to focus on what matters most rather than worrying about what could go wrong at any given moment.

Cognitive Defusion

The second step in ACT is cognitive defusion, which means identifying thoughts without judging them as rational or irrational. For example, if someone says, "I'm so stupid," they will often regard themselves as unintelligent because they believe their thoughts are accurate.

However, identifying this thought as just a thought without judging it as true or false allows them to be less stressed out by this thought later on when it pops up again in their head once more, and to introduce the very real possibility that perhaps this thought is not fundamental truth, and you are more than what you think.

Self as Context

Self as context means thinking about yourself as part of an ongoing process rather than as an isolated entity. This helps people detach from their thoughts to be more aware of what's going on around them instead of being consumed by negative thoughts and feelings. It also encourages them to take action based on values rather than acting out of habit or fear.

Being Present

An essential part of ACT involves being mindful—that means focusing on one thing at a time without worrying about what's happened in the past or what might happen in the future (for example, by sitting quietly without distractions). This helps people stay focused on what's happening in the present moment to make better decisions about how to move forward in their lives.


Values are important to us. Some values include family or travel. When we're feeling anxious or stressed, it often feels like our values are under threat. Still, when we can separate that feeling from our actual values, we're better able to see what's important—and how we can stay true to who we are even when we feel anxious or stressed.


We all have different commitments in life—some might be work or school commitments; others may be relationships. Imagine you're driving in traffic and suddenly realize the exit ramp for your house has appeared out of nowhere—you didn't know it was there.

You decide not to take it because you're in a rush, but then start thinking about all the reasons why it would have been better if you had taken that exit instead of continuing with your current direction:

"It would have saved me time," "I could have gotten some groceries," and "I could have found a parking spot close by." Even though we don't always get what we want when we want it (and even though sometimes our plans fall apart), those aren't reasons to beat ourselves up about it.

What Are the ACT Steps for Dealing With Anxiety?

Below are a few steps incorporating the ACT technique for dealing with anxiety:

Step 1: Have a Plan

First, write down three things that make you feel anxious. Then, think about what helps you calm down when you're feeling anxious—maybe taking deep breaths or listening to music—and write down those things, too. Now, make a plan around these things—your goal could be as simple as "when I feel anxious, I'll take three deep breaths" or "when I feel anxious, I'll put on my favorite playlist." By having a plan, you'll be more prepared to handle your anxiety when it comes up. You are allowed to tweak your plan later if necessary.

Step 2: Learn How to Separate Things

One of the reasons people experience anxiety is that they have difficulty separating themselves from their thoughts and feelings. It is essential to realize that these things are not necessarily representative of who we are as individuals – otherwise known as "self-as-context" in ACT terms. Learning how to separate yourself from your thoughts and feelings will make it easier for someone suffering from anxiety disorders to find their ground when an anxiety attack strikes.

Step 3: Be Kind to Yourself

Anxiety can be tough to deal with, but if you don't give yourself credit for how hard you're trying, how will you stay motivated? Remember that everyone has bad days (even people who don't have anxiety) and that your ability to keep trying is what matters most when it comes to treating your anxiety.

Step 4: Shift your Focus

One of the best ways to deal with anxiety is by changing your perspective on it—and what better way than turning your attention toward something else? If you're feeling down about something in particular (like not being able to get out of bed), try getting up and doing something else instead. Go for a walk or call up an old friend—anything that helps you put things into perspective.

Step 5: Commit Yourself

It can be easy to get caught up in worrying about the future or beating yourself up over past mistakes, but these thoughts only worsen anxiety symptoms and make it harder for us to function normally. If you get lost in your worries, take a deep breath and focus on what is happening. Are your muscles tense? Are your palms sweaty? Try to focus on that feeling as much as possible to become natural to you—even if it feels strange at first.

Step 6: Know What Is Important

When we're thinking about things that are important to us—our values, our goals, and what we want out of life–knowing what is important helps us feel more grounded. This helps us be in reality instead of being pulled along by our fears or negative emotions like sadness or anger (which often come up when anxious). When something makes us feel anxious (like worrying about losing control), think about what's essential in life and how those things are going well right now.


It's normal to worry about the future. We all want the best for ourselves, our family, and our friends. But sometimes, it can feel like you're constantly on edge or that you can't let go of your worries.

When we think about ourselves as part of an ongoing process rather than as fixed entities, we can begin to feel less anxious about our thoughts and actions. We also start to see that the things we value are worth striving for—even when our emotions tell us otherwise

 Get matched today if you are interested in working with a therapist who specializes in ACT therapy, who can support you in working through anything and everything facing uniquely you today.

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