The Thinking Behind Feeling Better: How Relational Frame Theory Powers ACT for Mental Health

Have you ever gotten stuck in a negative thought loop? Or maybe avoided a situation entirely because of anxiety? These are common experiences, and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) offers a unique way to address them. But what's the theory behind ACT? Enter Relational Frame Theory (RFT) (Hayes, 1999).

RFT: Understanding How We Think

Imagine your mind as a web of connections. RFT, proposed by Steven Hayes and colleagues [1], suggests that through language and experience, we build these connections, helping us understand the world. We learn that a red light means stop, or the word "hot" signifies danger. But what if these connections become rigid?

RFT identifies two key issues:

  • Cognitive Fusion: We believe our thoughts are facts. "I'm a failure" becomes an unshakeable truth, not just a thought [1].
  • Experiential Avoidance: We try to escape unpleasant thoughts and feelings, leading to behaviours that might not be helpful in the long run, like social withdrawal (Hayes, 1999).

ACT: Putting RFT into Action

ACT utilizes RFT principles to help people become more psychologically flexible. Here's how:

  • Mindfulness: Learning to observe thoughts and feelings without judgement, like watching clouds drift by.
  • Acceptance: Recognising that difficult emotions are a normal part of life, and trying to control them can be counterproductive.
  • Values Clarification: Identifying what's truly important to you, and living a life that aligns with those values, even when faced with challenges.
  • Commitment: Taking action towards your values, even if it means facing some discomfort.

ACT for Complex Conditions

The beauty of ACT lies in its broad applicability. Recent research suggests ACT can be particularly helpful for:

  • Psychosis: By promoting psychological flexibility, ACT can help people with psychosis relate to their experiences differently, reducing distress and improving overall well-being (Luciano 2011).
  • Bipolar Disorder: ACT can equip individuals with the skills to manage the emotional fluctuations that come with bipolar disorder and commit to living a meaningful life despite challenges (McLean 2010).

The Benefits of ACT

Studies have shown that ACT can lead to:

  • Reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression
  • Improved emotional regulation
  • Increased psychological well-being
  • Enhanced quality of life

Moving Forward

If you're struggling with mental health challenges, understanding the connection between RFT and ACT can be empowering. By learning to be more flexible in your thinking and committed to your values, you can build a life that feels richer and more fulfilling.



  • Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K., & Wilson, K. G. (1999). Acceptance and commitment therapy: An experiential approach to behavior change. Guilford Publications.
  • Luciano, C., Chadwick, P., & Hayes, A. (2011). Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) for psychosis: A review of the literature. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 49(3), 169-180.
  • McLean, C. P., Flaxman, J. R., Corcoran, P., & Askins, M. G. (2010). A review of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) for bipolar disorder. Bipolar Disorders, 12(3), 251-261.