Acceptance and Commitment Therapy as a Bridge to Hope
by 26Health Staff
At its simplest and best, counseling and psychotherapy resembles a series of conversations that help clients change something they would like to be different in their lives. Through the therapeutic process of self-discovery and acceptance, clients go about making those changes in their own way.
As much as we may wish otherwise, there are some issues that we do not have the power to change. Some challenges just won’t budge. When thinking of this concept, I’m reminded of the experiences I’ve had working with clients who learned they have HIV. While scientific advances are being made every day, the fact remains that as of 2020, a diagnosis of HIV is an immovable fact that cannot be changed. Common responses to this are frustration, depression, and anger, as expressed through these questions. My recently diagnosed HIV patients frequently ask: “Why did this happen?” and “Why are we not yet able to cure HIV?”
In the face of immovable facts, hopefulness lies in finding ways–however small–to change our lives in response to the things that we cannot change. One approach for achieving this in the counseling setting is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). While there are many components of this therapy, its two major elements can be demonstrated with the terms within its name: acceptance and commitment.
Finding Strength in Acceptance
Acceptance is achieved through an exploration of what experiences or conditions in life are causing us distress. The idea is to be mindful of these feelings, without attempting to avoid them. Avoidance may seem beneficial, but negative feelings will eventually catch up to us. They may even seem more intense if we don’t face them. Instead, ACT calls for exploring these feelings through mindfulness, as personal and powerful to us as they may be. This means developing the ability to view them from the perspective of an outsider.
After viewing feelings through this new, mindful lens, ACT then asks what we value in our lives and what we would like to pursue. The fundamental question becomes: what do we want our lives to look like, despite the issues or situations that we can’t change or control? As I think of those who may be struggling with negative feelings in response to HIV, I wonder what opportunities there may be for finding goals and meaning aligned to the values discovered through ACT. How could a diagnosis of HIV lead to positive outcomes, such as a broadening of community or a surge in empathy?
The commitment aspect of ACT means pursuing the goals that arise from this process of self-awareness. Once we uncover our values, we can make a commitment to change what we can.
I recognize that many people in my life who are living with HIV have gone through a similar emotional process. Their diagnosis’ once made them question what life could have left for them too. Through ACT, they now find meaning and purpose that may have never been there before. We can find hope in people pursuing their dreams while living positively with things they cannot change.