Acceptance & Commitment Therapy for Body Image Dissatisfaction

A Practitioner’s Guide to Using Mindfulness, Acceptance & Values-Based Behavior Change Strategies.

Reprinted from Eating Disorders Review
September/October 2010 Volume 21, Number 5
©2010 Gürze Books

Acceptance & Commitment Therapy for Body Image Dissatisfaction

A Practitioner’s Guide to Using Mindfulness, Acceptance & Values-Based Behavior Change Strategies
by Adria N. Pearson, Michelle Heffner, and Victoria M. Follette. Foreword by Steven C. Hayes
201 pages, $49.95
2010 New Harbinger Publications
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Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) has been advanced as a so-called “third wave” cognitive-behavioral therapy, addressing broader aspects of human experience, and identifying and changing the function of behaviors—not just focusing on their form or content. Instead of simply attempting to eliminate dysfunctional thoughts, these therapies aim toward acceptance of the thoughts and feelings and realigning the patient’s behaviors toward valued life goals. Some have added a focus on mindfulness.

Other therapies in this “third wave” group include dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), cognitive behavioral analysis system of psychotherapy (CBASP), functional analytic psychotherapy (FAP), and integrative behavioral couple therapy (IBCT). All these approaches have been seeking admission into the hallowed halls of evidence-supported therapies, with mixed success thus far. (For assessments and criteria, see: Powers MB et al. Acceptance and commitment therapy: a meta-analytic review. Psychother Psychosom 2009; 78(2):73-80, and Ost LG. Efficacy of the third wave of behavioral therapies: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Behav Res Ther 2008; 46:296-321).

One of the major figures in developing ACT as it is now researched and practiced, Professor Steven Haynes of the University of Nevada at Reno, and his colleagues have been editing a series of books describing research and clinical applications of ACT, limited to areas in which at least one randomized controlled trial has been conducted. The current volume, written by three psychologists mentored by Dr. Hayes, addresses the interesting application of the ACT model to the broad area of body dissatisfaction—not to eating disorders per se (other publications describe ACT for anorexia nervosa).

Some degree of body dissatisfaction as envisioned here is extremely common, occurring almost as “normative dissatisfaction” in the population at large. Such body dissatisfaction is particularly prevalent among patients seen by mental health and general health professionals, as for example, patients with diabetes and obesity, disfigurements related to injuries and mutilating surgeries, and with many other conditions. Using this broad clinical population as a starting point, this volume offers a nice opportunity for those unfamiliar with ACT to learn its basic premises and rationales and to see how specific tactics and exercises are applied to body dissatisfaction. Since I personally knew little about ACT prior to reading this book, I have appreciated the opportunity to make its acquaintance and to see its possibilities in this application.

To start, three theoretical bases of ACT are presented: relational frame theory, cognitive fusion, and experiential avoidance. Briefly (and I’m obviously oversimplifying many complex concepts here), words carry psychological power—in some instances specific words can be harmful to us. We form our identities and sense of self—for good and bad—by buying into and becoming attached to the power of specific words and various cognitive schemes—some of which are dysfunctional at early ages. We then develop a host of ways of avoiding unwanted thoughts and experiences. During treatment, the six core processes comprising ACT address these issues, subsumed under two overarching themes: Mindfulness and Acceptance and Behavioral Change and Committed Action (which between them focus on “self-as-context,” contact with the present moment, defusion, and acceptance, values and committed action). As is evident, these processes resemble some Buddhist practices, including facing and delving into the connections between one’s psychic pain and the thoughts that generate them, accepting them, examining these thoughts and their origins—deconstructing them and releasing the dysfunctional thoughts. Then, via “creative hopelessness”—after it’s clear that prior efforts at ineffective control don’t work—the individual becomes more capable of increasing future cognitive flexibility devoted to satisfying deeper values and goals.

With respect to treating body dissatisfaction per se, the book provides numerous case illustrations. Its practical applications offer specific instruments for assessing weight and body dissatisfaction and experiential avoidance, and for using the results of these assessments in furthering the six core processes. Questions for discussion and consideration are attached to many of the cases. Detailed suggestions are offered for dealing with barriers and resistances, and for focusing on “workability.” I particularly like the numerous, rich, concrete exercises using imaginal techniques and the helpful worksheets.

As a final bonus, the authors describe how these techniques might apply in a group and workshop format, and offer several exercises particularly suited to these applications.

— JY

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