Harnessing the power of chairwork in online ACT therapy

As the psychology world embraces online therapy as a convenient and accessible mental health resource, therapists are continually required to adapt their therapeutic approaches. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a widely recognised and effective form of therapy that can be seamlessly integrated into online sessions but at Contextual Consulting we love to understand how ACT can also complement other therapy approaches. As we prepare for our ACTing it out: using chairwork to enliven your sessions workshop we began to explore the concept of how chairwork can be used for ACT and consider how this might be successfully employed in the online therapy setting.

How does chairwork complement ACT therapy?

Chairwork is a dynamic and experiential method to facilitate insight, self-reflection, and the exploration of different perspectives. Traditionally conducted in face-to-face sessions, chairwork involves the use of two chairs to represent different aspects of the client’s internal experiences. The client physically moves between the chairs, embodying different roles or parts of themselves, engaging in dialogues, and gaining a deeper understanding of their thoughts, beliefs and emotions. As a result, these techniques are exceptionally useful for working with ACT processes, such as facilitating acceptance and defusion, building healthier self relationships and clarifying key values.

Benefits of chairwork in ACT therapy

  • Enhanced self-awareness: Chairwork facilitates a deeper exploration of conflicting emotions, thoughts, and beliefs. By engaging in conversation with different parts of themselves, insights and a greater understanding of inner experiences can be gained.
  • Emotional resonance: The experiential nature of chairwork helps clients connect with their emotions and values on a profound level. Through role-playing and dialogue, they can disentangle different emotional responses, to be able to express and process complex emotions, fostering emotional growth and resilience.
  • Cognitive defusion and flexibility: Chairwork encourages clients to challenge their rigid thinking patterns and consider alternative perspectives. By embodying different roles, clients gain cognitive defusion and flexibility while expanding their problem-solving abilities.
  • Therapeutic alliance: Engaging in chairwork can strengthen the therapeutic alliance. Collaborating on creative adaptations and exploring perspectives together can deepen the trust and rapport between therapist and client.

Adapting chairwork for online ACT therapy

While at first glance, the physical aspect of chairwork may seem challenging to replicate in online therapy, innovative adaptations can make it just as effective in the virtual realm. Here are some strategies for adjusting chairwork techniques:

  • Imaginary chairs: Encourage clients to visualise the presence of the chairs and physically move between the spaces, even without the physical props. Emphasise the importance of embodiment and encourage them to fully engage with the imagined dialogue.
  • Virtual backgrounds: Utilise virtual background features available in video conferencing platforms. Clients can choose and switch between different backgrounds to represent the different perspectives they wish to explore.
  • Role-playing: Instead of using chairs, clients can assume different physical postures or use hand gestures to represent the various parts of themselves. Role-playing exercises can still be effective in helping clients embody different perspectives and engage in meaningful dialogues.
  • Incorporating props: While physical chairs may not be present, therapists can encourage clients to use symbolic props during online chairwork. For example, clients can hold different objects or use drawings to represent different perspectives. These props serve as tangible reminders of the roles or parts being explored, enhancing the client’s engagement and immersion in the process.

Online therapy sessions can also be recorded with the client’s consent, offering the advantage of reviewing chairwork exercises at a later time. Clients can revisit the recorded sessions to reflect on their experiences, gain further insights, and reinforce their learning and growth. By adapting traditional chairwork techniques for the virtual environment, we can help clients explore conflicting thoughts, emotions, and perspectives with the same depth and effectiveness. Through enhanced self-awareness, emotional resonance, cognitive flexibility, and a strengthened therapeutic alliance, chairwork provides a dynamic and impactful tool for facilitating transformative change.

With continued exploration and innovation, the integration of chairwork into ACT therapy, whether in-person or online can further empower clients on their journey towards psychological well-being. If you would like to learn more about exploring the applications of chairwork in ACT then take a look at our upcoming workshop: ACTing it out: using chairwork to enliven your sessions workshop. Presented by Dr Tobyn Bell and Dr Matthew Pugh it will cover key practical methods to successfully adapt chairwork to an online environment. Also our ‘Meet the Speaker‘ interview with Tobyn is still available to read.

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