ACT to Improve Psychological Flexibility and Chronic Pain

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


Hence, the ultimate goal of ACT is not to reduce symptoms or pain (although other simultaneous therapies may well be aimed at achieving this). Instead, its goal is to improve functioning by increasing psychological flexibility and the ability to act according to personal values, even in the presence of negative experiences, like pain.” – Painfocus


We all have to deal with pain. It’s inevitable, but hopefully mild and short lived. For many, however, pain is a constant in their lives. Chronic pain affects a wide swath of humanity.  At least 100 million adult Americans have common chronic pain conditions. It affects more Americans than diabetes, heart disease and cancer combined. Chronic pain accompanies a number of conditions. The most common forms are low back pain, osteoarthritis, and fibromyalgia.


The most common treatment for chronic pain is drugs. These include over-the-counter analgesics and opioids. But opioids are dangerous and prescription opioid overdoses kill more than 14,000 people annually. Fortunately, there are alternative treatments. Mindfulness and yoga practices have been shown to improve pain. A therapeutic technique that includes mindfulness training called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) has been shown to be effective in treating a number of physical and psychological disorders and has been shown to successfully improve acceptance of chronic pain, pain intensity, satisfaction with life, and physical functioning in patients with chronic pain.


Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a mindfulness based psychotherapy technique that focuses on the individual’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior and how they interact to impact their psychological and physical well-being. ACT employs mindfulness practices to increase awareness and develop an attitude of acceptance and compassion in the presence of painful thoughts and feelings. Additionally, it teaches individuals to “just notice”, accept and embrace private experiences and focus on behavioral responses that produce more desirable outcomes. At its core, ACT is targeted at increasing psychological flexibility, which is an ability to modify behavior based upon conscious and open contact with thoughts, feelings, and sensory experiences, and in a manner that reflects the individual’s values and goals.


In today’s Research News article “A Comprehensive Examination of Changes in Psychological Flexibility Following Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Chronic Pain.” See:

or see summary below or view the full text of the study at:

Scott and colleagues examine the relationship of changes in psychological flexibility to improvements in chronic pain produced by Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). They recruited patients who suffered from chronic pain of various types, with lower back pain the most common (43%). They were treated 4 days per week for four weeks with a group based ACT therapy. Before and after treatment they were measured for pain intensity, pain acceptance, daily functioning, depression, cognitive fusion, decentering, and goal directed activity.


They found that ACT was quite effective in improving chronic pain symptoms. It produced a large significant improvement in depression, moderate improvements in pain intensity, physical and social functioning, and chronic pain acceptance, and small improvements in goal directed activity and decentering. They further found that the processes of psychological flexibility, including chronic pain acceptance, cognitive fusion, and goal directed activity significantly predicted the magnitude of the improvements in the chronic pain symptoms. Hence, it appears that ACT increases psychological flexibility and as a result improves chronic pain.


It is important to identify how a particular therapy has its effects upon the disorder. This allows for improvements in the techniques and maximization of its effects. The fact that psychological flexibility was the key change produced by ACT suggests that future efforts should be to modify ACT to maximize its impact on psychological flexibility.


So, ACT to improve psychological flexibility and chronic pain.


“Mindfulness teaches people with chronic pain to be curious about the intensity of their pain, instead of letting their minds jump into thoughts like “This is awful.” It also teaches individuals to let go of goals and expectations. When you expect something will ease your pain, and it doesn’t or not as much as you’d like, your mind goes into alarm- or solution-mode. You start thinking thoughts like “nothing ever works.” “What we want to do as best as we can is to engage with the pain just as it is.” It’s not about achieving a certain goal – like minimizing pain – but learning to relate to your pain differently.” – Elisha Goldstein


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


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Study Summary

Scott, W., Hann, K. E. J., & McCracken, L. M. (2016). A Comprehensive Examination of Changes in Psychological Flexibility Following Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Chronic Pain. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 46, 139–148.



Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) for chronic pain aims to improve patient functioning by fostering greater psychological flexibility. While promising, ACT treatment process research in the context of chronic pain so far has only focused on a few of the processes of psychological flexibility. Therefore, this study aimed to more comprehensively examine changes in processes of psychological flexibility following an ACT-based treatment for chronic pain, and to examine change in these processes in relation to improvements in patient functioning. Individuals with chronic pain attending an interdisciplinary ACT-based rehabilitation program completed measures of pain, functioning, depression, pain acceptance, cognitive fusion, decentering, and committed action at pre- and post-treatment and during a nine-month follow-up. Significant improvements were observed from pre- to post-treatment and pre-treatment to follow-up on each of the treatment outcome and process variables. Regression analyses indicated that change in psychological flexibility processes cumulatively explained 6–27 % of the variance in changes in functioning and depression over both assessment periods, even after controlling for changes in pain intensity. Further research is needed to maximize the effectiveness of ACT for chronic pain, and to determine whether larger improvements in the processes of psychological flexibility under study will produce better patient outcomes, as predicted by the psychological flexibility model.

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