What’s the difference between CBT and ACT?

Before you think about how to find the right therapist, considering the best therapeutic approach is a helpful first step. There are many different types of psychotherapy, but if you’re dealing with anxiety or depression then Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the one most people are familiar with. CBT focuses on learning how to identify and change your thoughts and behaviours. Basically, the goal of CBT therapy is to rewire your brain to overcome mental health problems.

A lesser known, and in my experience more effective approach is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). ACT is a third wave CBT approach based on acceptance and mindfulness principles which explores how to gain psychological flexibility to live in accordance with one’s values. In other words, ACT teaches you different strategies to accept your problems and move past them based on how you want to live your life. 

Both CBT and ACT have been found to be effective for treating anxiety and depression and I have trained extensively in both. I’m here to describe them to help you get a feel for what is right for you.

What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)?

CBT is a form of psychotherapy that focuses on altering the way people think and behave, which requires you to be aware of the thoughts you have about yourself and others. CBT is based on the idea that if you can change your thoughts and behaviours, then you can change your feelings.

The goal of CBT is to help you identify negative thought patterns and create plans to deal with these thoughts so you can lead a happier life. 

How Does CBT Work?

To better understand the process, let’s start with an example of how CBT could be used to work though thoughts and situations that cause you anxiety. 

During therapy sessions, psychologists might ask you how your thought patterns are negatively impacting your life. For example, if you feel anxiety over potentially being unemployed, a psychologist might ask why you feel this way. They may find out that you’re worried about meeting your basic needs without a source of income. With this information, the psychologist could then work with you on ways to address these beliefs. One way to work though that specific problem would be to write down your worries and then list what you could do to address each problem. 

Another example could be identifying negative or unhelpful thought patterns that cause depression. Perhaps you often have the thought, “I’m a terrible person because of a mistake I made in my past.” A CBT therapist might ask you to consider the evidence for this thought and think about an alternative interpretation. So, in this example the evidence might be that you did something in your past that you’re not proud of, but an alternative thought could be “it’s not surprising that I made mistakes in the past because I’m human and everyone makes mistakes, it doesn’t dictate my worth as a human being.”

The aim here is that you can overcome your anxiety and improve your overall mood by recognising and changing unhelpful thoughts Keep in mind that these examples are just to illustrate how CBT works, it can be used to treat a variety of issues beyond anxiety and depression.  

What is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy?

The goal of ACT is to help you accept your thoughts and feelings, rather than try to change them. This is one of the reasons why ACT was much more effective than CBT for treating my anxiety and depression and why I use it with the vast majority of my clients.

Using mindfulness skills with the practice of self-acceptance, this form of behavioural therapy aims to help you develop mental flexibility and resilience. This flexibility is achieved through the six core principles of ACT:

  • Acceptance — Recognising the problems in your life without actively trying to change them. 
  • Cognitive Diffusion — Learning how to distance yourself from your thoughts and noticing that a thought is just a thought and not necessarily the truth. 
  • Being Present — Learn how to be in the now, focus on the present moment and set aside worries about the past or future. 
  • Self as Context — The idea of “the observing self” stepping back and seeing what’s happening in your mind. Recognising that thoughts are not facts.
  • Values — What drives you to get up in the morning? What do you care about the most, and where do you want your life to go? 
  • Committed Action — Committing to act based on your defined values. This is how you can make progress in your life.

Simply put, ACT therapy focuses on helping you live according to your values while accepting how you feel about your circumstances in life.

How Does ACT Work?

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy works in many ways so I will only offer a couple of examples here. 

When beginning ACT, I will often ask a client to commit to mindfulness practice. Daily meditation can teach you how to live in the present moment. Focusing on those moments can help reduce anxiety, soothe the nervous system and enable you to be a calmer person more of the time. Meditation also helps us recognise just how busy and unhelpful the human mind can be left to its own devices. We learn we can control where we place our attention and how to unhook from unhelpful patterns of thinking.

Being present to your life is one thing, connecting with a sense of purpose is what makes it worthwhile. With ACT we make time to identify your values so that you can connect to what makes your life meaningful and take action to live in alignment with what matters most to you.

There are many reasons why someone may turn to CBT or ACT. 

These therapies can be of great benefit to those who suffer from anxiety and depression, but they may also be of use for those struggling with the loss of a loved one, recovering from trauma, dealing with a lack of confidence or facing chronic pain.

Some people find that their mood improves after just a few sessions and others may need more time. There is no “magic number” of sessions that will work for everyone, and it’s a journey we go through together. 

If you’re interested in exploring how working with me with ACT might support you please don’t hesitate to get in touch. We’ll book a no commitment exploratory call and see if we might be a good fit.

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