Understanding ACT Training For Pain
Who are the people most important to you? What things matter most to you? How do you want to be as a person? These are the questions we ask people to think about in Acceptance and Commitment Training, or ACT (pronounced as a word rather than an abbreviation). In other words, we ask you to consider your values.
ACT is a type of therapy that has been found effective for many different concerns – anxiety, depression, anger problems, and – most important for this blog – chronic pain. ACT works by teaching people a number of different skills, including mindfulness (focusing on the present moment), perspective-taking, and committing to engage in valued activities.
Let’s take a closer look at how this can be helpful. For people with chronic pain, it’s easy to start avoiding activities that might cause pain. So Maria might not go to her son’s soccer practice, Fred might not go out to the movies with his friends, and Annabell might not sign up for that college class she wants to take. And guess what? That totally makes sense! Our entire lives, we are taught to avoid pain. Doctors are always trying to get rid of our pain. Commercials for pain relievers are on every ten minutes. And yes, that makes sense, too. However, as we continue to avoid more and more activities, our main focus in life can turn into avoiding pain.
But here’s the thing: pain is a part of life. Sometimes, it’s inevitable. And while Maria, Fred, and Annabell are spending so much time and energy on avoiding pain, they’re missing out on a lot of really good stuff! So…what to do? Well, in ACT, techniques like mindful breathing, distancing ourselves from our thoughts, and refocusing our energy on our values can help expand our focus to include more than just avoiding pain. Sometimes we may choose to do something important even though we know we will have pain while doing it. You may be thinking that this is easier said than done, and that’s a good point. It’s not something that happens overnight. But by learning a series of techniques and exercises, and by learning a new way to think about chronic pain, people actually do make progress. Quite a few research studies have shown that, after several weeks to months of ACT, people report that pain is not interfering with their lives nearly as much as before. That means they are spending more time doing the things that matter with the people that matter to them. And as an ACT therapist, that’s one of my values – seeing those changes in the people I work with.
At the National Institutes of Health, we are conducting a research study using ACT for people ages 16 to 34 with NF1 and chronic pain. If eligible, we will fly you to Bethesda, Maryland for 2 to 3 days to participate in the intervention with a personal ACT trainer. During the next 8 weeks, we will send you weekly email assignments and video chat with you every other week to help support your progress. Then you will return to the NIH for a follow-up visit. The study is randomized, which means that everyone is randomly assigned to either the immediate intervention group or the wait list group (this group will return to get the intervention 6 to 10 weeks later). We pay all participants a small amount to thank them for their time each time they complete a set of questionnaires (up to 4 times total). For more information, please contact Taryn Allen, PhD ( or Staci Martin, PhD (, or call 301-496-0561.