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Acceptance And Commitment Therapy Exercises 21 Examples for Behavioral Change

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Do you ever come across a situation when you feel trapped by thoughts that make you act in ways that do not help? Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) provides a workable and scientific method of overcoming this behaviour pattern to live a life worth living. Through various exercises, ACT can help us become more accepting and stop judging our thoughts or feelings, which can then be accompanied by taking actions that align with our values.

Explore the realm of ACT exercises as a means to better develop your psychological flexibility, which allows you to adapt resourcefully to difficulties and at the same time strive towards achieving your true potential. In this journey that we’re going to embark on now, you’ll learn all about acceptance and commitment and find out how it can radically change your life.

Key Takeaways

  • Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) uses exercises like Anchor Breathing and Cognitive Defusion to help you deal with hard thoughts and feelings.
  • ACT helps you find out what your values are in different parts of life, like work or family. It guides you to take actions that match these values.
  • Mindfulness is a big part of ACT. Exercises teach you to notice your thoughts without judging them, which helps reduce the avoidance of tough emotions.
  • Group exercises in ACT create support while teaching mindfulness skills, helping people face their challenges together.
  • Writing an 80th birthday speech can show you what’s important in your life and help guide the choices you make today.
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Understanding Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, known as ACT, teaches you to handle difficult thoughts and feelings effectively. This therapy focuses on being aware of your reactions without fighting them.

Instead, you learn to accept these as normal parts of life. ACT also aims to help you commit to actions that align with your values.

This approach uses mindfulness to help create a loving space for painful emotions and memories. You get tools for dealing with self-criticism and negative thought patterns in a healthier way.

The main goal is to increase your psychological flexibility so that you can live a more vibrant life. Through this process, meaningful change occurs as you focus less on avoiding discomfort and more on moving towards what matters most in your life.

ACT Exercises for Expansion and Acceptance

The expansion and acceptance exercises in ACT focus on mindfulness and defusion techniques to help individuals observe their thoughts and feelings without judgment. These exercises aim to cultivate a sense of inner peace and increase psychological flexibility by promoting a non-struggle approach to difficult experiences.

Anchor Breathing

Anchor Breathing is a grounding exercise from ACT therapy. It serves as a powerful tool to help people remain connected to the present moment.

  • Start by finding a comfortable and quiet place to sit or stand.
  • Close your eyes gently, if it feels right for you, or lower your gaze.
  • Take a slow, deep breath in through your nose, envisioning an anchor dropping from your mind into your stomach.
  • Hold that breath for just a moment. Feel the stability of being anchored down.
  • Exhale slowly through your mouth, imagine any tension releasing with the breath.
  • Continue this process for several minutes, each time picturing the anchor firmly holding you in the present.
  • Notice physical sensations around you – perhaps your feet on the ground or air on your skin.
  • Acknowledge any thoughts or feelings that arise without judgement and return focus to your breath.
  • Use this breathing method as often as needed throughout the day to maintain calmness and presence amidst challenges.
  • Practice Anchor Breathing regularly to increase its effectiveness in managing emotions and experiences.

Cognitive Defusion from Unhelpful Thoughts

Moving from the calming effects of anchor breathing, we now focus on separating ourselves from unhelpful thoughts using cognitive defusion exercises. It’s important to become aware of how certain ideas can dominate our minds and hinder our progress.

  • Recognise the thought: Begin by identifying a specific unhelpful thought you’re having. Acknowledge its presence without trying to push it away or fight it.
  • Observe without judgement: Treat the thought as if it were a leaf drifting by on a stream. You see it, but you don’t have to pick it up or follow it.
  • Say the thought out loud: Slowly voice the unhelpful thought, noticing how your mind and body react as you hear it.
  • Thank your mind: Politely thank your mind for this thought – this encourages detachment and acknowledges that thoughts are just mental events.
  • Visualise the separation: Imagine placing the unhelpful thought into a balloon and watch as it floats away into the sky, getting smaller and less significant.
  • Name the story: If this negative thought is part of a larger story that repeats in your head, give that narrative a name to disarm its power over you.
  • Use humour: Gently mocking or playfully dismissing the unhelpful thought can reduce its grip on your emotions – maybe give it an amusing voice or silly character.
  • Practise regularly: Just like any skill, cognitive defusion improves with practice. Dedicate time each day to work through these steps, enhancing your ability to detach from negative thinking patterns.

The Struggle Switch

The Struggle Switch is a key concept in ACT that helps people deal with internal battles. Here’s how it works:

  • Picture a switch in your mind that controls your reaction to difficult thoughts or feelings.
  • The scale of the switch goes from 0 – 10, where 0 means no struggle and 10 means a total struggle.
  • Imagine turning this switch down when you feel yourself fighting against unwanted emotions.
  • Recognise that trying to fight these feelings often makes things worse, not better.
  • Use this metaphor to help you accept your thoughts and emotions instead of battling with them.
  • Practice noticing when the switch flips on in response to challenging situations.
  • Decide to turn the switch down as an act of acceptance, letting go of the struggle.
  • Turning down the Struggle Switch is linked to reducing impulsive or harmful behaviours.
  • Through videos on YouTube, explore how others have used this metaphor successfully.
  • Remember that controlling this imaginary switch can lead to greater peace and less anxiety.

Observing Anxiety Mindfully

Observing anxiety mindfully is a core exercise in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. It helps people witness their anxious feelings without getting caught up in them.

  • Start by finding a quiet space where you can sit comfortably without distractions.
  • Close your eyes gently, or lower your gaze if that feels better.
  • Take slow, deep breaths to settle into the present moment.
  • Notice where in your body you feel anxiety – it might be a tight chest, churning stomach, or tense muscles.
  • Imagine anxiety as an object with a shape, colour, texture, and temperature. See it clearly in your mind’s eye.
  • Observe this object of anxiety from a distance. Just watch it without trying to change it.
  • When thoughts pop up, acknowledge them and let them pass like clouds in the sky.
  • If you find yourself getting tangled in anxious thoughts, come back to your breathing as an anchor.
  • Practise viewing your emotions as temporary events that don’t define who you are.
  • Use mindfulness to enhance attention and improve how you manage difficult feelings.

Radio Doom and Gloom

Radio Doom & Gloom is a metaphor in ACT that helps people deal with their negative thoughts. It shows how constant negative thinking can be like a radio station broadcasting bad news all day.

  • Picture your mind as a radio: Imagine there’s a radio in your head that only plays gloomy tunes and news. This station is Radio Doom & Gloom.
  • Notice the broadcast: Start by simply paying attention to when this station starts playing. Recognise the negative thoughts without getting hooked by them.
  • Turn the volume down: Visualise reaching for the radio dial and lowering the volume. As you do this, notice how the noisy thoughts begin to fade away.
  • Change the channel: Once you’ve turned down Radio Doom & Gloom, choose to switch stations. Find a mental track that plays more positive or calming content.
  • Don’t try to break the radio: Understand that trying to smash or silence this mental radio won’t work. The key is learning to reduce its influence over you.
  • Use mindfulness: Focus on the present moment. Engage in activities that keep you grounded and aware of your surroundings rather than lost in thought.
  • Practice regularly: Like any skill, tuning out of Radio Doom & Gloom gets easier with practice. Make it part of your daily routine for better results.

Thank Your Mind and Name the Story

These two exercises help you handle tough thoughts. “Thank Your Mind” and “Name the Story” are two exercises that make this easier.

  • Say “Thanks” to your mind: This is a way of noticing but not getting stuck on unhelpful thoughts. Picture your mind trying to help, even when it’s off-target.
  • Spot unhelpful thoughts: You catch when your mind tells you things that aren’t helpful. It might say ‘I can’t do this’ or ‘This is too hard’.
  • Give thanks out loud: Respond to these thoughts by saying ‘Thanks, mind!’ This shows you hear them but don’t need to act on them.
  • Name the tale: Recognise thought patterns causing stress. Naming helps you see them as just stories, not facts.
  • Identify the narrative: Notice when familiar, stressful stories play in your head. They could be about failure or worry.
  • Label it clearly: Choose a name for these patterns like ‘The I’m no good story’. This lets you spot them quicker next time.
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ACT Exercises for Clarifying Values and Taking Committed Action

Clarifying Personal Values Across Life Domains

Values clarification in ACT involves helping clients identify and prioritise their core values across various aspects of life. This process provides motivation and direction, guiding individuals in making choices aligned with their deepest beliefs. Here’s a breakdown of the different life domains where personal values can be clarified:

  1. Relationships: Identifying the importance of connections, trust, and intimacy in personal relationships.
  2. Career: Determining the significance of professional growth, fulfilment, and contribution in one’s work life.
  3. Health: Recognising the value placed on physical well-being, mental wellness, and self-care practices.
  4. Family: Understanding the role of family dynamics, support systems, and nurturing relationships within this domain.
  5. Community: Evaluating the significance of social responsibility, activism, and community involvement.
  6. Spirituality: Reflecting on beliefs, purpose, and transcendence as part of one’s spiritual journey.
  7. Education: Assessing the importance of learning, knowledge acquisition, and personal growth through education.
  8. Recreation: Identifying activities that provide joy, relaxation, and rejuvenation outside of work or responsibilities.
  9. Personal Growth: Recognising the value of self-improvement, resilience-building, and adaptability to change.
  10. Leisure: Understanding downtime activities that bring joy, pleasure, and balance to one’s life.

Writing Your Own 80th Birthday Party Speech

  • Imagine yourself at 80 and write the speech as if it’s happening in the present.
  • Reflect on what truly matters to you and express this in the speech.
  • Consider what accomplishments and relationships you would cherish at that age.
  • Visualise the essence of your life, focusing on what brings deep satisfaction.
  • Use this exercise to guide present decisions and actions towards a meaningful life.

The Clean and Dirty Discomfort Diary

  1. It helps individuals distinguish between clean and dirty pain in their lives.
  2. Users can identify and record experiences of clean pain, which are associated with values and personal growth.
  3. By recognising dirty discomfort, users acknowledge unhelpful thoughts and behaviours hindering progress.
  4. Through this diary, individuals gain insight into the impact of both types of discomfort on their daily lives.
  5. The exercise encourages individuals to reflect on the sources of pain and discomfort in various life domains.
  6. Users can employ this tool to develop strategies for managing dirty discomfort effectively.
  7. The Clean and Dirty Discomfort Diary promotes mindfulness by fostering awareness of emotional responses to different experiences.
  8. This exercise aligns with the focus of ACT on clarifying values and taking committed action in the face of both clean and dirty discomfort.
  9. It offers a practical framework for individuals to deepen their understanding of how pain manifests in their lives.

ACT Exercises for Increasing Mindfulness and Reducing Avoidance

Acceptance of Thoughts and Feelings

  1. Thank Your Mind and Name the Story: This exercise involves recognising your mind’s attempts to protect you and labelling your thoughts as stories, not facts.
  2. Observing Anxiety Mindfully: By observing anxiety without judgment, individuals learn to accept their feelings rather than resisting them.
  3. Anchor Breathing: Focusing on breathing helps anchor individuals in the present moment, promoting acceptance of their current thoughts and emotions.
  4. Cognitive Defusion from Unhelpful Thoughts: This exercise aids in distancing oneself from unhelpful thoughts, fostering a more accepting stance towards them.
  5. Radio Doom and Gloom: By portraying negative thoughts as radio chatter, individuals can detach from them and accept them as passing mental events.
  6. The Struggle Switch: This exercise prompts individuals to visualise switching off their internal struggle, and embracing acceptance instead.

Not This, Not That Exercise

The “Not This, Not That” exercise is not explicitly detailed in the search results provided. However, based on the principles of ACT, it likely involves a practice where individuals identify what they are not in order to gain a clearer understanding of what they are. This could involve distinguishing between one’s self and the thoughts or feelings that come and go, emphasizing the “self as context” rather than “self as content.” By recognizing that they are not their thoughts or emotions, individuals can observe them without becoming entangled in them, thus fostering cognitive defusion.

Milk, Milk, Milk Exercise

The “Milk, Milk, Milk” exercise is a classic ACT intervention that involves repeating a word out loud, such as “milk,” for some time (usually 1–2 minutes). The purpose of this exercise is to help individuals experience the word in a different context, focusing on the direct properties of the stimulus (such as the sound of the word and the muscle movements involved in saying it) rather than the derived functions or meanings typically associated with it (e.g., “it’s cold and white, you drink it”). Through repetition, the word begins to lose its usual associations and is experienced more as a mere sound, which illustrates how the context can change the function of verbal stimuli. 

Group Exercises for Mindfulness and ACT

Values Clarification

In a group setting, therapists can guide participants through exercises that help clarify their values. This might involve sorting through a deck of cards with different values written on them and selecting those that are most important to each individual. Group members can then share and discuss their chosen values, which helps to foster understanding and support within the group

Mindfulness Practice

Mindfulness is a core component of ACT, and group sessions can include guided mindfulness exercises. These practices help participants become more present and aware of their thoughts and feelings without judgment. An example might be a “Leaves on a Stream” meditation, where participants visualize their thoughts as leaves floating down a stream, observing them come and go

The Observer Exercise

This exercise involves using metaphors or guided meditations to help participants take a step back and observe their thoughts and feelings from a distance. By doing so, they can see themselves as separate from their internal experiences, which is an aspect of the “Self as Context” process in ACT

Passengers on the Bus Exercise

This metaphor is used to illustrate the concept of cognitive defusion. Imagine you are a bus driver, and your thoughts and feelings are for the passengers on the bus. Some passengers are noisy, critical, or distracting, trying to tell you where to drive. However, as the driver, you have the choice to listen to them or to focus on the road ahead and continue driving towards your chosen destination, guided by your values. This metaphor helps individuals understand that they do not have to be controlled by their thoughts and feelings; they can acknowledge them without letting them dictate their actions

The Role of Metaphors in ACT Therapy

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) uses metaphors extensively to convey complex psychological concepts in a more relatable and understandable manner. These metaphors serve as tools to help individuals grasp the essence of ACT’s core principles, such as acceptance, cognitive defusion, and the importance of living according to one’s values. 

The Ball in a Pool Metaphor

The “Ball in a Pool” metaphor illustrates the concept of acceptance versus suppression of unwanted thoughts and feelings. Imagine trying to submerge a beach ball underwater in a pool. It requires constant effort to keep the ball submerged, and once you stop, it pops back up, often with more force. This metaphor suggests that trying to suppress or control our thoughts and feelings is exhausting and ultimately futile. Instead, by allowing them to be, and acknowledging their presence without judgment, we can conserve our energy and focus on actions aligned with our values.

The Prince and the Beggar Metaphor

In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), the Prince and the Beggar metaphor is a useful tool to illustrate the continuity of one’s self despite changing circumstances.

The prince and the beggar decide to swap roles for a day, with the beggar experiencing the luxuries of royal life and the prince facing the hardships of living on the streets. Despite these external changes, their internal selves—their core identities and perspectives—remain unchanged. The beggar, now in a position of luxury, remains grateful and generous, while the prince, despite his hardships, retains a sense of entitlement and disdain for others.

This metaphor serves to demonstrate the enduring nature of an individual’s sense of self amid fluctuations in life, helping patients grasp therapeutic concepts on a deeper level.

Leaves on a Stream

In this metaphor, thoughts are visualized as leaves floating down a stream. You are sitting by the stream, watching the leaves (thoughts) pass by without getting attached to them. This practice helps with cognitive defusion by encouraging a stance of observation rather than engagement with each thought. It emphasizes the transient nature of thoughts and the ability to let them go

The Quicksand Metaphor

The quicksand metaphor illustrates the counterproductive nature of struggling against uncomfortable feelings and situations. If you struggle in quicksand, you sink deeper, but if you spread out and lie back, you float to the surface. This metaphor teaches acceptance of discomfort and the idea that sometimes, the best way to deal with a problem is to stop struggling against it and instead, take a stance of acceptance, which can lead to a more effective response

Other Ways to Apply ACT Techniques

ACT techniques can also be applied in various settings such as schools, workplaces, and community groups. Group workshops and training sessions can incorporate mindfulness exercisesvalues clarification activities, and role-playing to enhance interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence.

Additionally, mobile applications and online platforms offer accessible resources for practising ACT techniques independently. These tools provide guided meditations, value-based goal-setting exercises, and cognitive defusion strategies to support individuals in applying ACT concepts in their daily lives.


In conclusion, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) provides a wealth of exercises to help individuals accept difficult emotions and commit to their values. These exercises include mindfulness techniques such as Anchor Breathing and Cognitive Defusion.

They are designed to reduce suffering and enrich life by fostering self-awareness and a more compassionate relationship with challenging feelings. With the aid of ACT worksheets, individuals can develop the skills needed to face inevitable suffering while moving towards a meaningful life based on their core values.


1. What is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)?

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, often abbreviated as ACT, is a form of psychotherapy that uses behavioural science to help people change their relationship with painful thoughts and feelings.

2. How do ACT exercises improve mindfulness?

ACT exercises focus on mindfulness and acceptance strategies, directing individuals to handle thoughts without overreacting or trying to avoid them.

3. Can ACT therapy techniques reduce stress?

Yes, by using various ACT therapy techniques such as defusing automatic thoughts, individuals can learn to manage stress through self-reflection and contextual understanding.

4. Are there any resources available for learning ACT?

Certainly! You can download free materials like the 21 ACT worksheets which contain diverse exercises designed to enhance your therapeutic skills.

5. What are the six core processes of ACT?

The six core processes in ACT include mindfulness practices, acceptance techniques, self-awareness development, committed action plans based on personal values clarification, cognitive defusion methods for separating from troublesome thoughts, and contextual behavioural interventions reflecting relational considerations.

6. Where can I find examples of exercises used in individual therapy sessions with an emphasis on Acceptance And Commitment Therapy?

On the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science website, you will find resources like worksheets offering specific exercises that aid therapists in guiding clients through the principles of acceptance and commitment.

Acceptance And Commitment Therapy Exercises 21 Examples for Behavioral Change
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