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The Benefits of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Addiction Treatment

Last Updated on June 6, 2024 by It’s Complicated

Acceptance and commitment therapy for addiction treatment (ACT) represents a transformative approach to addiction treatment. This therapy emphasizes accepting what is out of one’s control while committing to action what improves and enriches one’s life. It uniquely integrates acceptance and mindfulness strategies with commitment and behavior change, which are crucial in addressing the psychological aspects of addiction. By promoting psychological flexibility, ACT assists individuals in living a values-driven life rather than one dictated by addiction challenges.

Core Principles of ACT

Acceptance and commitment therapy for addiction treatment has been effective in treating various issues, including addiction. Here, we analyze each of the core principles of ACT and their relevance in addiction treatment.


Acceptance in ACT refers to embracing thoughts, feelings, and sensations without trying to change, avoid, or escape them. In the context of addiction treatment, this principle encourages individuals to acknowledge and sit with uncomfortable cravings and urges rather than resorting to substance use to alleviate these feelings. 

Additionally, learning about how transfer addiction works can help emphasize why it’s important to accept feelings rather than avoid them. Often, people might switch from one addictive behavior to another to dodge uncomfortable emotions. By practicing acceptance, they can confront their feelings without harsh judgment, weakening the hold these emotions have on their actions. This change is crucial in breaking the cycle of addiction, as it stops the need to use substances to hide or numb discomfort.

Cognitive Diffusion

Cognitive diffusion involves changing the way individuals interact with their thoughts. Instead of seeing thoughts as literal truths or commands that must be followed, cognitive defusion helps people observe their thoughts as temporary mental events. In addiction treatment, this principle is vital as it enables individuals to distance themselves from harmful thoughts like “I need to drink to relax” or “I can’t handle this without using drugs.” Techniques such as repeating a thought out loud until it loses its meaning or visualizing thoughts as leaves floating down a stream help clients see these thoughts as less threatening and less dictating of their actions. 

Being Present (Mindfulness)

Being present, or mindfulness, is the practice of being fully engaged in the current moment without distraction or judgment. It teaches individuals to be aware of their present experiences, including thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations, without being overwhelmed by them. Mindfulness practices, such as mindful breathing or body scans, help individuals develop a greater awareness of their triggers and cravings. 

Self as Context

The self is more than just the sum of one’s experiences and thoughts. Self as a context emphasizes the idea that there is a part of the self that remains constant and unchanging, regardless of the changing content of thoughts and feelings. This principle is particularly beneficial in addiction treatment because it helps individuals differentiate between their identity and their addiction. Recognizing that their addictive behaviors do not define them allows clients to develop a sense of self that is capable of change and growth. 

Values Clarification

Values clarification is the process of identifying and understanding what is truly important to the individual. In ACT, values are considered guiding principles that give direction and meaning to life. For individuals struggling with addiction, clarifying values involves exploring what they want their life to stand for and what they deeply care about, such as family, career, health, or personal growth. Once these values are clear, individuals can use them as a compass to guide their actions and decisions. 

Committed Action

Committed action involves taking concrete steps toward living in accordance with one’s values. This principle focuses on setting goals and taking actionable steps to achieve them despite potential obstacles. This could include attending therapy sessions, participating in support groups, or engaging in activities that promote physical and mental health. 

Techniques Used in ACT

Techniques of acceptance and commitment therapy for addiction treatment are diverse and designed to nurture psychological flexibility and enhance coping mechanisms. Here are some of them:

  • Mindfulness exercises teach individuals to stay present and observe their thoughts and feelings without judgment. Exercises such as mindful breathing and body scans help develop awareness of internal experiences and reduce impulsive reactions to triggers. 
  • Experiential exercises and metaphors provide vivid illustrations that help clients grasp abstract concepts. For instance, the metaphor of carrying a heavy backpack can symbolize the burden of unhelpful thoughts and emotions, encouraging clients to let go of these weights. 
  • Urge surfing helps individuals manage cravings by viewing them as transient waves that rise and fall. By riding out these urges without giving in, clients learn that cravings are temporary and can be tolerated without resorting to addictive behaviors. 

Benefits of ACT in Addiction Treatment

Enhancing psychological flexibility is central to ACT, as it helps individuals adapt to changing circumstances, maintain perspective, and commit to actions that align with their values despite challenging thoughts and feelings. This flexibility is imperative for breaking free from the rigid patterns of behavior associated with addiction. A study by Lee and colleagues showed that about 61% of the ACT group tested had above-average outcomes after treatment and 67% at follow-up.

ACT also provides effective tools for managing cravings and negative emotions, which teaches individuals to observe and tolerate these experiences without acting on them. In addition, ACT’s emphasis on values clarification helps individuals identify what truly matters to them, guiding their actions toward meaningful goals and personal growth.

Challenges and Solutions in Implementing ACT

Many individuals struggling with addiction may find it difficult to embrace uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and cravings without trying to avoid or change them. This resistance can hinder the therapeutic process and limit the effectiveness of ACT techniques. To overcome these challenges, therapists can build a strong therapeutic alliance, promoting trust and openness with clients. 

Using experiential exercises and metaphors can make the concept of acceptance more relatable and less intimidating, gradually helping clients become more comfortable with this approach. Introducing acceptance practices incrementally and providing consistent support and encouragement are also crucial. Additionally, integrating ACT with other therapeutic modalities can address various aspects of resistance, creating a more comprehensive treatment plan that facilitates smoother implementation and enhances overall treatment effectiveness.

Comparison with Other Treatment Methods

ACT differs from traditional cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) by focusing on accepting thoughts and feelings rather than challenging and changing them. While CBT aims to alter unhelpful cognitive patterns, ACT encourages individuals to embrace their inner experiences and commit to value-driven actions. This acceptance-based approach can be particularly beneficial for those who struggle with high cognitive fusion, where thoughts are perceived as literal truths.

Explore the Benefits of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Addiction Treatment

Acceptance and commitment therapy for addiction treatment offers a comprehensive and transformative approach. It helps individuals navigate their recovery with greater psychological flexibility. The emphasis on values clarification and committed action empowers individuals to lead lives aligned with their deepest values, enhancing their overall well-being and resilience against relapse. As an innovative and effective therapy, ACT stands out in addiction treatment, offering hope and practical tools for lasting recovery.


  1. Recovery Research Institute: Provides an in-depth overview of ACT, including its goals, underlying theories, and specific techniques used in the context of addiction treatment​ (Recovery Research Institute)​.
  2. Steve Rose, PhD – Blog on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Addiction: Offers practical insights into how ACT is applied in therapy, including detailed descriptions of techniques like urge surfing and cognitive defusion​ (Steve Rose, PhD)​.
  3. Frontiers in Psychology: A bibliometric analysis that outlines the growing body of literature surrounding ACT, emphasizing its effectiveness and application across various conditions. (Frontiers)​.

Alex Alonso – COO of Bright Futures Treatment Center

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