ACT offers an alternate means of conceptualizing anxiety – it promotes psychological flexibility, which helps us to change the function of, and our relationship with, anxiety. Anxiety then becomes interesting thoughts, sensations, and emotions that occur in our bodies. We no longer need to fight anxiety – rather, we practice being present. In the psychological flexibility model of anxiety, we are looking to engender improved functioning and a greater ability to live by our core values. In order to process our anxieties, it is important to identify our core fears. Once we have a solid understanding of the sources of our anxiety and have moved toward greater psychological flexibility, we are ready to engage in some exposure therapy, in which we practice psychological flexibility in the presence of a feared stimuli.
In exposure exercises, we do not try to “power through” and engage in internal avoidance strategies. Instead, we adopt a stance of cognitive defusion – stepping back from our anxiety, acknowledging it, and building a more skillful relationship with it. We no longer add interpretations and meanings to our thoughts, feelings, and sensations. Via this process, we see that all of the efforts we have put in trying to control our anxiety are not effective, and that there is another (better) way.
We become increasingly willing to hold space for unhelpful patterns, while making room for preferred ones. Exposure-based ACT exercises are helpful in managing a variety of anxiety-based disorders (i.e., Social Phobia, Panic Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder).