Utilising ACT alongside CBT for OCD

How ACT principles like mindfulness and defusion from thoughts can complement ERP, helping you manage the emotional distress of obsessions.

Today, I want to discuss how therapy models can work together to help with OCD. Specifically, I shall be talking about how Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) can work with the exposure and response prevention aspect of CBT to help with OCD. Phew, that was wordy! Most psychologists, like myself, will be trained in many therapy models, and combining that with the expertise of a seasoned practitioner, you can make real gains.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is challenging to say the least and leaves you grappling with intrusive thoughts and compulsive behaviours.

Traditional treatment approaches, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and specifically Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP), have shown effectiveness. However, they may not fully address the emotional distress associated with OCD. This is where I found ACT to be particularly helpful in my own experience of helping people with OCD for 20 years.

One of the most useful aspects of ACT is mindfulness and cognitive defusion, which I shall explain and show how using ACT with CBT for the treatment of OCD can help people manage their distress.

therapy group with Moodsmith logo and words ACT and CBT for OCD

Understanding OCD and Its Treatment Landscape

If you have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) you will be familiar with the recurring, unwanted thoughts (obsessions) and repetitive behaviours (compulsions) and will understand better than most the distress they cause.

The treatment landscape for OCD primarily includes Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), particularly Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP), and medication. While these treatments have proven effective, they may not fully address the emotional distress associated with OCD. This is where Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) can play a complementary role.

The Fundamentals of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) walks a fine line encouraging you to embrace their thoughts and feelings (even the scary or repulsive thoughts) rather than fighting or feeling guilty for them. It is grounded in the concept of ‘psychological flexibility’, which refers to the ability to stay in the present moment and adapt behaviours in accordance with personal values.

ACT differs from traditional CBT approaches. While CBT focuses on challenging and changing unhelpful thoughts, ACT encourages acceptance of thoughts and feelings. This acceptance is not about resignation but about acknowledging reality and making room for distressing experiences.

ACT is not just about reducing symptoms. It also aims to help individuals lead fulfilling lives by clarifying personal values and taking committed action towards them.

Core Principles of ACT

ACT is based on six core principles: acceptance, cognitive defusion, being present, self as context, values, and committed action. These principles are interrelated and together, they promote psychological flexibility.

If you are unfamiliar with ACT, you can read my guide here. The article focuses on how ACT helps with a sub-type of OCD, but gives an overview of the model.

Acceptance involves embracing private experiences (thoughts, feelings, memories) rather than trying to change them. Cognitive defusion teaches techniques to reduce the impact and influence of unhelpful thoughts. Being present refers to awareness and engagement with the current moment.

Self as context is the perspective that you are not your thoughts or feelings. Values are chosen life directions, while committed action involves taking steps towards these values. These principles guide the therapeutic process in ACT.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP)

If you have attended therapy for OCD, you will most likely come across Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) as it is a widely used therapeutic approach for treating OCD and extremely useful in the hands of a skilled practitioner. It is based on the premise that our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours are interconnected. By changing unhelpful thought patterns, we can influence our feelings and behaviours.

Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) is a specific form of CBT used for OCD. It involves exposing individuals to the thoughts, images, and situations that make them anxious and preventing the accompanying compulsion.

The Role of ERP in Treating OCD

ERP is considered the gold standard for OCD treatment, International OCD Foundation describes the model as the most important type of CBT. It helps individuals confront their fears and stop their compulsive behaviours. Over time, this exposure helps reduce the anxiety associated with the obsessions.

The process of ERP can be challenging. It requires facing fears without the immediate relief provided by compulsions, although, as I noted in yesterday’s post, Virtual Reality is a promising treatment to help with this.

ERP is most effective when tailored to the individual’s specific obsessions and compulsions. It is a collaborative process between the therapist and the client, requiring active participation and commitment from the client.

Integrating ACT with CBT for Enhanced OCD Treatment

ACT is not a replacement for CBT or ERP, but rather a complementary approach. It adds another layer to the treatment process, addressing the emotional distress associated with OCD. ACT focuses on changing the relationship individuals have with their thoughts, rather than the thoughts themselves.

ACT techniques can be integrated into the ERP process. For instance, mindfulness can help individuals stay present during exposure exercises. Cognitive defusion techniques can assist in distancing from obsessive thoughts.

The goal is not to eliminate obsessions or compulsions, but to reduce their impact on the individual’s life. This is achieved by fostering psychological flexibility, the cornerstone of ACT.

Mindfulness and Cognitive Defusion in ACT

Mindfulness is a core component of ACT and time and time again, in my clinical practice, I see the relief it brings to people with OCD. It involves paying attention to the present moment in a non-judgmental way. For OCD sufferers, mindfulness can help them observe their obsessions without getting entangled in them.

Cognitive defusion is another key ACT technique. It involves seeing thoughts as just thoughts, not facts or commands. This can be particularly helpful for individuals with OCD, who often struggle with intrusive and distressing thoughts.

Through mindfulness and cognitive defusion, individuals learn to experience their thoughts and feelings without automatically reacting to them. This can reduce the power of obsessions and the urge to perform compulsions.

Acceptance and Psychological Flexibility

Acceptance, in the context of ACT, does not mean resignation or approval. Instead, it involves acknowledging the presence of obsessions and compulsions without trying to suppress or control them. This can be a powerful tool for managing the distress associated with OCD.

Psychological flexibility is the ability to stay in contact with the present moment and change or persist in behaviour in the service of chosen values. It is the ultimate goal of ACT. For individuals with OCD, developing psychological flexibility can help them lead fuller, more meaningful lives despite their symptoms.

ACT encourages individuals to identify their values and take committed action towards them. This shift in focus from obsessions and compulsions to values and actions can be transformative for individuals with OCD.

The Complementary Nature of ACT and ERP

ACT and ERP are not mutually exclusive. They can be used together to enhance OCD treatment. While ERP directly targets obsessions and compulsions, ACT addresses the emotional distress associated with them.

ACT can help individuals tolerate the discomfort of exposure exercises. It can also reduce the likelihood of relapse by teaching skills to manage future obsessions and compulsions. Thus, integrating ACT with ERP can provide a more comprehensive approach to OCD treatment.

The combination of ACT and ERP can empower individuals with OCD. It can help them not only manage their symptoms but also lead meaningful lives in line with their values.

Case Studies: ACT in Action with ERP

Case studies provide valuable insights into the application of ACT for OCD. They illustrate how ACT principles can be integrated with ERP in a therapeutic setting. For instance, mindfulness can be used during exposure exercises to stay present and non-judgmental.

Cognitive defusion techniques can help individuals see their obsessions as just thoughts, not facts or commands. This can reduce the distress associated with exposure exercises and increase their effectiveness.

Acceptance and commitment strategies can motivate individuals to engage in exposure exercises despite the discomfort. They can also help individuals pursue meaningful activities despite the presence of obsessions and compulsions. These case studies highlight the potential of ACT to enhance ERP and improve OCD treatment outcomes.

Empirical Evidence Supporting ACT for OCD

Research supports the effectiveness of ACT for OCD. Several studies have shown that ACT can reduce OCD symptoms and improve quality of life. Although you should be aware that this study found ACT to be possibly efficacious.

ACT has also been shown to enhance the effectiveness of ERP. It can increase the tolerance for discomfort during exposure exercises and reduce the likelihood of relapse. This evidence underscores the potential of ACT as a valuable addition to traditional OCD treatment approaches.

However, more research is needed to further validate these findings and explore the optimal ways to integrate ACT with ERP. This will help refine treatment protocols and maximize the benefits for individuals with OCD.

Conclusion: The Synergy of ACT and CBT/ERP in OCD Treatment

In conclusion, the integration of ACT with CBT, specifically ERP, offers a promising approach to OCD treatment. By addressing the emotional distress associated with OCD, ACT can enhance the effectiveness of ERP and help individuals better manage their symptoms.

As I already noted, in my clinical practice I regularly use ACT with CBT and find it helps clients, immensely.

The principles of mindfulness, cognitive defusion, and acceptance central to ACT can empower individuals to change their relationship with their thoughts. This can lead to a reduction in the power of obsessions and compulsions over their lives.

While more research is needed, the current evidence supports the potential of this integrated approach. It underscores the importance of continued exploration and refinement of treatment protocols to maximize benefits for individuals with OCD.

Scroll to Top