Improve Major Depressive Disorder with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

Improve Major Depressive Disorder with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


Insecure attachment styles are more prevalent in individuals with mood disorders and has been associated with worse clinical outcomes, whereas a secure attachment is linked to more positive health behaviors, such as greater adherence to health plans and preventive health behaviors.” – Tamara Cassis


Clinically diagnosed depression is the most common mental illness, affecting over 6% of the population. Major depression can be quite debilitating and difficult to treat. It is usually treated with antidepressant medication. But, of patients treated initially with drugs only about a third attained remission of the depression. After repeated and varied treatments including drugs, therapy, exercise etc. only about two thirds of patients attained remission. But drugs often have troubling side effects and can lose effectiveness over time.


Attachment has been shown to affect the individual’s well-being. There are a variety of ways that individuals attach to others. They are secure, insecure, avoidant, ambivalent, fearful, preoccupied, and disorganized attachment styles. Secure attachment style is healthy and leads to positive development while all of the others are maladaptive and unhealthy. All of the  attachment styles, save secure attachment, are associated with depression.


Mindfulness training is an alternative treatment for depression. It has been shown to be an effective treatment for depression and its recurrence and even in the cases where drugs failAcceptance 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. It then works to change thinking to alter the interaction and produce greater life satisfaction. ACT employs mindfulness practices to increase awareness and develop an attitude of acceptance and compassion in the presence of painful thoughts and feelings. ACT teaches individuals to “just notice”, accept and embrace private experiences and focus on behavioral responses that produce more desirable outcomes.


It is possible that Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) may improve depression by affecting attachment. In today’s Research News article “Explicit and implicit attachment and the outcomes of acceptance and commitment therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy for depression.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at:,  A-Tjak and colleagues explore this possibility. They recruited adult patients diagnosed with major depressive disorder and randomly assigned them to receive 18 weekly 50 minute sessions of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). They were measured before and after treatment and 6 months later for depressive symptoms, quality of life, attachment anxiety, and attachment avoidance. Implicit attachment was measured with a card sorting task.


They found that the two treatments were equally effective producing 75% to 80% rates of remission from depression and significant reductions in depression, attachment anxiety, and attachment avoidance and increases in quality of life. The effects were still present at the 6-month follow-up. The decreases in attachment anxiety and attachment avoidance were associated with decreases in depression and increases in quality of life while no relationships were present for implicit attachment.


The fact that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) were equally effective for major depression is not surprising as ACT incorporates CBT. It is interesting that the magnitude in the changes in attachment anxiety and attachment avoidance were related to the improvements in depression and quality of life. But these results do not demonstrate causation, changes in attachment might cause changes in depression, changes in depression might cause changes in attachment, or therapy might change both independently. What is clear is that both ACT and CBT are highly effective and lasting treatments for major depressive disorder.


So, improve major depressive disorder with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.


Mindfulness training can “generate positive emotions by cultivating self-compassion and self-confidence through an upward spiral process.” – Amanda MacMillan


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ and on Twitter @MindfulResearch


Study Summary


A-Tjak, J., Morina, N., Boendermaker, W. J., Topper, M., & Emmelkamp, P. (2020). Explicit and implicit attachment and the outcomes of acceptance and commitment therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy for depression. BMC psychiatry, 20(1), 155.




Attachment theory predicts that patients who are not securely attached may benefit less from psychological treatment. However, evidence on the predictive role of attachment in the effectiveness of treatment for depression is limited.


Explicit attachment styles, levels of attachment anxiety and attachment avoidance, as well as implicit relational self-esteem and implicit relational anxiety were assessed in 67 patients with major depressive disorder (MDD) receiving Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). ANOVA and hierarchical regression analyses were performed to investigate the predictive power of explicit and implicit attachment measures on treatment outcome.


Explicit attachment avoidance at pre-treatment significantly predicted reduction of depressive symptoms following treatment. Reductions in attachment anxiety and avoidance from pre- to post-treatment predicted better treatment outcomes. Neither one of the implicit measures, nor change in these measures from pre- tot post-treatment significantly predicted treatment outcome.


Our findings show that attachment avoidance as well as reductions in avoidant and anxious attachment predict symptom reduction after psychological treatment for depression. Future research should use larger sample sizes to further examine the role of attachment orientation as moderator and mediator of treatment outcome.


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