ACT Therapy vs CBT: What’s the Difference?

Administrator / Chief Clinical Officer
Certified cognitive-behavioral therapist, expert addiction and chemical dependency counselor, certified for more than twenty years of experience in adolescent, adult and family psychotherapy.
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What Is ACT?

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a form of psychotherapy that emphasizes acceptance as a way to deal with negative thoughts and feelings. It is a branch of clinical behavior analysis and falls under the umbrella of cognitive-behavioral therapy, yet it distinguishes itself by using unique strategies and goals. ACT is built on the foundation of Relational Frame Theory, which investigates the way humans learn and apply language and cognition.

ACT is not merely about overcoming pain or unpleasant feelings; instead, it encourages individuals to accept these as inevitable aspects of the human experience. The primary objective is not to eliminate difficult feelings but to learn to coexist with them in a way that doesn’t disrupt personal values or goals. This approach is particularly useful for individuals who are struggling with thought patterns and behaviors that are rigid or detrimental.

The therapy is centered around six core processes, often visualized as a hexaflex. These processes are: 

    1. Cognitive Defusion (learning methods to reduce the literalness of thought)
    2. Acceptance (actively embracing the experience of thoughts and feelings without unnecessary defense)
    3. Contact with the Present Moment (being psychologically present and aware)
    4. The Observing Self (developing a sense of continuity in consciousness)
    5. Values (discovering what is truly important and meaningful)
    6. Committed Action (setting goals according to values and carrying them out responsibly)

    By integrating these processes, ACT aims to develop psychological flexibility. This is seen as the ability to contact the present moment more fully as a conscious human being and to change or persist in behavior when doing so serves valued ends. Psychological flexibility is vital in ACT because it helps individuals adapt to fluctuating situational demands, reconfigure mental resources, shift perspective, and balance competing desires, needs, and life domains.

    In practice, ACT involves experiential exercises, metaphor, storytelling, and mindfulness skills. These components are not used to control or avoid psychological experiences; instead, they help to change one’s relationship with these experiences. 

    Through ACT, individuals learn to stop fighting their inner feelings, to recognize what they truly value, and to commit to behavior that aligns with those values, even in the face of pain or challenges. This holistic approach is what sets ACT apart, emphasizing a life lived in accordance with one’s values rather than one dominated by avoidance of discomfort.

    Benefits of ACT

    Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) offers a range of benefits that can be particularly transformative for individuals struggling with various psychological challenges. By emphasizing acceptance, mindfulness, and committed action towards valued goals, ACT helps individuals develop greater psychological flexibility, which is key to adapting to life’s demands and enhancing overall mental health.

    One of the primary benefits of ACT is its effectiveness in increasing psychological flexibility. This involves learning to feel and think with openness, attend to the present, and change or persist in behavior in the service of one’s values. Such flexibility allows individuals to adapt to changing circumstances, make healthy choices, and direct their lives in a meaningful way.

    ACT’s focus on accepting rather than avoiding difficult thoughts and feelings is another significant benefit. This approach helps individuals to engage with their experiences without becoming entangled in them, reducing the impact of negative thoughts and emotions on their lives. This can be particularly beneficial for those dealing with anxiety, depression, or stress, as it promotes a healthier relationship with one’s internal experiences.

    Mindfulness practices within ACT help individuals live in the present moment, enhancing their awareness and engagement with life. This can lead to a decrease in ruminative and obsessive thoughts and an increase in moments of joy and connection.

    The values clarification aspect of ACT encourages individuals to identify what is most important to them, guiding them to lead more purposeful and fulfilling lives. This can be particularly empowering for individuals feeling lost or disconnected from their sense of self.

    Who Benefits from ACT?

    ACT has been applied successfully across a wide range of psychological issues and populations. It is particularly beneficial for individuals dealing with:

    • Mental Health Disorders: Those suffering from anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and eating disorders have found relief through ACT. By learning to accept their thoughts and feelings and committing to actions aligned with their values, individuals can reduce the hold these disorders have on their lives.
    • Chronic Pain and Illness: ACT is effective for individuals dealing with chronic pain or illness, helping them accept their condition and live a fulfilling life despite it. It teaches coping strategies that focus on living well in the present moment, regardless of physical limitations.
    • Substance Abuse and Addiction: ACT helps individuals with substance abuse and addiction by focusing on underlying issues and promoting a values-driven approach to recovery.
    • Stress and Burnout: People facing high levels of stress or burnout can benefit from ACT’s emphasis on mindfulness and acceptance, helping them develop healthier ways to relate to their experiences.
    • Life Transitions and Personal Growth: Individuals navigating significant life changes or seeking personal growth find ACT beneficial in clarifying their values and taking committed action towards their goals.

    In essence, ACT’s broad applicability and focus on promoting psychological flexibility and value-driven living make it a powerful tool for a wide range of individuals seeking to enhance their mental health and overall quality of life.

    What is CBT?

    Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a widely recognized and effective form of psychotherapy that focuses on identifying and restructuring negative thought patterns that can lead to maladaptive behaviors and emotions. Rooted in the principle that thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are interconnected, CBT aims to alleviate psychological stress by teaching individuals to recognize and challenge irrational or harmful thoughts and to develop healthier thinking and behavior patterns.

    At the core of CBT is the concept that our thoughts about a situation influence how we feel and act. If these thoughts are distorted or unhelpful, they can lead to negative emotions and behaviors. CBT works to identify these cognitive distortions and provides strategies to challenge and change them. This process is often referred to as cognitive restructuring, which helps individuals to develop more balanced and accurate thinking, leading to improved emotional and behavioral responses.

    CBT is a structured and time-limited approach, typically conducted over a series of sessions. Therapists and clients work together in a collaborative effort to identify specific problems and set goals. CBT is highly goal-oriented and problem-focused, with an emphasis on developing coping strategies and skills that individuals can apply in their daily lives.

    One of the key strategies in CBT is the use of homework or practice outside of therapy sessions. Clients are often encouraged to apply the skills they learn in therapy to real-life situations, which helps to reinforce new patterns of thinking and behavior.

    CBT has been extensively researched and is considered an effective treatment for a variety of psychological issues. These include:

        • Mood disorders such as depression and anxiety

        • Eating disorders

        • Obsessive-compulsive disorder

        • Panic attacks

        • Post-traumatic stress disorder

        • And many others

      It’s also used to help people cope with:

          • Stressful life situations

          • Relationship difficulties

          • Chronic medical conditions

        The therapy’s focus on practical, actionable strategies makes it appealing to many. Clients learn specific skills that they can use to identify and challenge their negative thoughts, control distressing emotions, and alter undesirable behavior patterns. This empowers individuals with the tools to manage their symptoms and improve their quality of life actively.

        Moreover, CBT’s structured nature and the emphasis on measurable outcomes make it a time-efficient and focused therapeutic approach. Sessions are typically focused on the present, though understanding how past experiences influence current thinking and behavior can also be part of the therapy.

        CBT provides a pragmatic, structured, and empirical approach to psychotherapy that empowers individuals to become active agents in their own recovery. Through the development of self-awareness, cognitive restructuring, and the acquisition of new coping skills, individuals learn to overcome the psychological challenges that have hindered their well-being and progress toward a more positive and balanced state of mental health.

        Benefits of CBT

        Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a highly versatile and widely used form of psychotherapy that offers numerous benefits to individuals struggling with various psychological issues. By focusing on altering negative patterns of thought and behavior, CBT provides a practical approach to solving problems. It equips individuals with effective strategies to cope with and overcome their challenges, leading to improved mental health and well-being.

        Developing Coping Strategies: One of the primary benefits of CBT is its focus on teaching individuals specific, practical skills that can be used to modify negative thoughts, manage emotions, and alter behaviors. These skills are not just applicable to current problems but can also be utilized to address future challenges, providing long-lasting benefits.

        Evidence-Based Effectiveness: CBT is one of the most researched forms of therapy, with a vast body of evidence supporting its effectiveness in treating a wide range of disorders. Its structured approach and the emphasis on measurable goals contribute to its success in clinical settings.

        Enhanced Self-Awareness: CBT encourages individuals to closely examine their thought patterns and behaviors, leading to increased self-awareness and insight into their own mental health. This heightened self-understanding is crucial for personal growth and emotional regulation.

        Problem-Solving Skills: Through CBT, individuals learn to identify and solve problems more effectively. This skill is beneficial in addressing the specific issues at hand and can be applied to various life situations, enhancing overall adaptability and resilience.

        Reduction in Symptoms of Mental Health Disorders: CBT has been proven to reduce symptoms of numerous mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, and more. It helps decrease the intensity and frequency of these symptoms, significantly improving the quality of life.

        Improved Relationships: By changing the way individuals perceive and react to situations, CBT can lead to improved interpersonal relationships. Enhanced communication skills, increased empathy, and better conflict-resolution skills are some of the relational benefits that can arise from CBT.

        Prevention of Relapse: CBT provides individuals with the tools to tackle the early signs of mental health decline, reducing the likelihood of a relapse into old patterns of negative thinking and behavior.

        Who Needs CBT Therapy?

        • Individuals with Mental Health Disorders: People suffering from anxiety, depression, PTSD, OCD, phobias, and other mental health issues can benefit significantly from CBT. It helps address the thought patterns and behaviors that underlie these conditions.
        • Those Struggling with Stress and Life Transitions: CBT is not limited to clinical disorders. It’s also effective for individuals dealing with significant stress, life changes, or relationship issues, providing them with strategies to manage their situations more effectively.
        • People with Chronic Illnesses or Pain: Individuals dealing with chronic conditions or pain can use CBT to improve their coping mechanisms, helping them to better manage the psychological impact of their illnesses.
        • Individuals with Harmful Behavior Patterns: CBT can aid people looking to change problematic behaviors, such as substance abuse, eating disorders, or aggressive behavior. By addressing the thought processes that contribute to these behaviors, CBT can facilitate lasting change.
        • Anyone Seeking Personal Development: Even individuals without specific mental health conditions can benefit from CBT’s focus on enhancing self-awareness, improving problem-solving skills, and fostering healthier thought patterns.

        In summary, the benefits of CBT extend far beyond symptom relief for specific disorders. It offers a toolkit for individuals to enhance their mental resilience, improve their relationships, and foster a proactive approach to their mental health. Whether someone is dealing with a clinical disorder, navigating life’s challenges, or simply seeking personal growth, CBT provides a structured, evidence-based pathway to a healthier, more fulfilling life.

        Comparison of ACT and CBT

        Here’s a comparative table that outlines key differences between ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) and CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). This table provides a broad overview of the two therapies, highlighting their unique approaches and applications. Both ACT and CBT are versatile and evidence-based, suited to different types of individuals and psychological concerns

        Feature ACT Therapy CBT Therapy
        Core Focus Enhancing psychological flexibility and accepting one’s thoughts and feelings without unnecessary struggle. Identifying and changing negative thought patterns and behaviors.
        Approach to Thoughts Teaches to observe and accept thoughts without attachment or avoidance. Focuses on challenging and modifying distorted or unhelpful thoughts.
        Therapeutic Goal To live in accordance with one’s values despite the presence of painful thoughts and feelings. To alleviate psychological distress by modifying dysfunctional thinking and behavior.
        Techniques Used Mindfulness, acceptance, commitment to action based on values, cognitive defusion. Cognitive restructuring, behavioral activation, exposure therapy.
        Role of Mindfulness Central to the practice, encouraging non-judgmental, present-moment awareness. Used as a tool among others to manage thoughts and behaviors.
        View on Negative Thoughts Not to be eliminated but accepted as part of the human experience. Often targeted for change or restructuring.
        Outcome Measurement Based on living according to personal values and committed action. Often based on symptom reduction and behavioral change.
        Duration and Structure Tends to be flexible, varying with the individual’s needs and progress. Structured and time-limited, with a typical duration outlined from the start.
        Suitability Especially beneficial for those dealing with chronic pain, anxiety, depression, and stress. Effective for a wide range of psychological issues, including anxiety, depression, and behavioral problems.
        Philosophical Underpinning Based on Relational Frame Theory, emphasizing context and the relational nature of thought. Rooted in the theory that thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are interconnected and influence each other.

        FAQs for Comparing ACT and CBT

        1. What are the main differences between ACT and CBT?
        ACT focuses on accepting your thoughts and feelings and committing to actions that align with your values, while CBT aims to change negative thought patterns and behaviors to improve mental health.

        2. Can ACT and CBT be used together?
        Yes, in some cases, therapists may integrate elements of both ACT and CBT, depending on the individual’s needs and treatment goals.

        3. Which is better for anxiety, ACT or CBT?
        Both ACT and CBT are effective for treating anxiety. The choice depends on the individual’s preferences and specific issues. CBT is more about controlling symptoms by changing thought patterns, while ACT focuses on accepting and living with anxiety.

        4. How do I know if ACT or CBT is right for me?
        Consider your personal treatment goals, whether you’re more inclined towards changing your thought patterns or learning to live with them, and discuss these preferences with a mental health professional.

        5. Are there conditions where one therapy is preferred over the other?
        CBT is widely recommended for conditions like depression and specific anxiety disorders, such as OCD and social anxiety, due to its focus on modifying thought patterns and behaviors. ACT might be preferred for chronic pain, stress, or when past CBT treatment hasn’t been successful.

        6. How long do ACT and CBT treatments typically last?
        Both therapies are time-limited, but the duration can vary. CBT usually ranges from 5 to 20 sessions, while ACT can vary more widely depending on the individual’s progress and needs.

        7. Can I switch from CBT to ACT if I feel one isn’t working for me?
        Yes, it’s possible to switch therapies if one isn’t meeting your needs. It’s essential to discuss any concerns with your therapist to make an informed decision.

        8. Are ACT and CBT suitable for children and adolescents?
        Both therapies have been adapted for use with children and adolescents, but the approach might be modified to suit the developmental stage of the young person.

        9. How do ACT and CBT address thoughts differently?
        CBT focuses on challenging and changing negative thoughts, while ACT encourages noticing, accepting, and learning to live alongside these thoughts.

        10. Can ACT or CBT be done in group settings?
        Yes, both ACT and CBT can be effective in group settings, providing a space for individuals to learn from others’ experiences while developing their skills.


        Fang, S. et al. 2023. The differences between acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and cognitive behavioral therapy: A three-level meta-analysis. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science Volume 28, April 2023, Pages 149-168

        Harley, J. 2014. Bridging the Gap between Cognitive Therapy and Acceptance and

        Commitment Therapy (ACT). Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences 193 ( 2015 ) 131 – 140. Science Direct.

        Samaan M., et al. 2021. A clinical effectiveness trial comparing ACT and CBT for inpatients with depressive and mixed mental disorders. Psychother Res. 2021 Mar;31(3):355-368. doi: 10.1080/10503307.2020.1802080. Epub 2020 Aug 7.

        Administrator / Chief Clinical Officer
        Certified cognitive-behavioral therapist, expert addiction and chemical dependency counselor, certified for more than twenty years of experience in adolescent, adult and family psychotherapy.
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