The ACE Model of Psychedelic Therapy

Researchers from Imperial College London published a groundbreaking study showing that psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, combined with psychotherapy, could effectively reduce depression.

The study involved taking patients through a newly developed therapeutic model – the Accept, Connect, Embody (ACE) therapy model. Having proven a highly successful outcome, the ACE model could become the new gold standard for the future of psychedelic therapy.

Read below to learn more about the ACE therapy model and how therapists can use it in combination with psychedelics.

The ACE Model and Psychological Flexibility in Psychedelic Therapy

What Is Psychological Flexibility, and Why Is It Important in Mental Health?

Broadly, psychological flexibility is the ability for someone to cope with and adapt to changes in their circumstances. In practice, psychological flexibility consists of many different mental processes. The scientific researchers Kashdan and Rotterburg defined psychological flexibility as a measure of these different mental processes. These include:

  • Adapting to changing demands of a situation
  • Using mental resources in multiple different ways
  • The ability to shift perspective
  • Balancing competing desires, needs, and different life-domains

Scientific research has shown that there is a link between psychological flexibility and better overall wellbeing. Conversely, various mental health disorders are associated with psychological inflexibility, with typical features of psychological illnesses including rigid thoughts and behaviors and difficulty coping with unexpected events and changes in circumstances.

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For example, many depressed patients experience rumination, which is the process of repeating negative thought patterns. Because of psychological inflexibility, depressed patients find it challenging to change these thinking patterns, even though they know it causes them harm.

Because of the link between psychological inflexibility and mental health, increasing somebody’s psychological flexibility is a crucial goal in psychological therapy. Studies have shown improving psychological flexibility increases the likelihood patients have positive outcomes from therapy.

Psychological Flexibility and Psychedelics

Research has demonstrated that psychedelics, such as psilocybin and DMT, are valuable tools in therapy and can improve patients’ lives with several mental health disorders, including depression, anxiety, OCD, and eating disorders.

Psychedelics could help increase psychological flexibility, which could explain why they are so helpful in treating mental health.

Some theorize that psychedelics could help increase psychological flexibility, which could explain why they are so helpful in treating mental health. In support of this claim, researchers from Johns Hopkins University found that patients showed more significant decreases in anxiety and depression if their levels of psychological flexibility increased during psychedelic therapy.

Psychological Flexibility and the ACE Model of Therapy

The psychedelic researcher, Dr. Rosalind Watts, developed the Accept, Connect, Embody (ACE) model of therapy as a therapeutic approach for psychedelic-assisted therapy.

Watts was one of the lead therapists in Imperial College London’s first psilocybin for depression trial. She used patients’ experiences from this trial to help develop the model, focusing on aspects of the psychedelic therapy patients found most beneficial in their healing journeys.

The primary goal of the ACE model is to help patients increase psychological flexibility. In therapy, psychological flexibility is centered on six principles, on which the ACE therapy model is based. These principles are:

  • Being in the present moment
  • Accepting unwanted feelings
  • Cognitive defusion – realizing that one’s thoughts aren’t inherently true
  • Accepting the dynamic nature of self
  • Being able to clarify meaningful values
  • Conscious action – action and behavior which is consistent with one’s values

By helping patients increase psychological flexibility, the ACE model of therapy aims to maximize the benefits psychedelic drugs offer during psychedelic therapy sessions.

What Are the Core Principles of the ACE Therapy Model?

The first part of the model is acceptance.

During psychedelic therapy, patients are encouraged to accept any negative or challenging emotions and thoughts during their experience instead of trying to ignore or suppress them.

By confronting any negative thoughts and feelings – patients can learn to understand where they come from and turn them into opportunities for self-growth and positive change.

The second part of the model is connection.

Research has demonstrated that psychedelics can help increase connectedness. For example, several studies have shown that psychedelics increase connection to the natural world. Greater experiences of connection to self, nature, and other people are linked to improved wellbeing. In contrast, experiences of disconnection are linked with the likelihood of mental health disorders.

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As such, the ACE therapy model encourages patients to feel deeply into any increased sense of connectedness they experience with psychedelics. Patients are also encouraged to try and connect to meaningful values in their life when setting an intention before going into the psychedelic experience.

The final part of the ACE model is embodiment.

Science has highlighted the link between psychological trauma and the body, meaning sometimes people can hold emotions in certain body areas. Feeling into these areas may help patients more deeply connect to their inner feelings and memories. The therapist will recommend that patients notice where they feel any negative emotions inside their bodies during psychedelic therapy.

Staying present in the body can help patients from being overly stuck in negative thoughts during difficult parts of psychedelic experiences.

How Is the ACE Therapy Model Used in Psychedelic Therapy?

Preparation

Before their guided psychedelic sessions, patients will have several talk therapy sessions with their therapist. The aims of these preparation sessions are to:

  • Develop trust between the therapist and patient
  • Develop a willingness to confront difficult emotions should they arise
  • Set an intention for the session

Preparation sessions help foster the acceptance element of the ACE therapy model. During preparation, the patients come to terms with the possibility of negative thoughts and feelings during their psychedelic experiences. The therapist reminds the patient that these challenges can be opportunities for positive change.

Embodiment is also fostered in the preparation sessions. As part of the preparation, the therapist asks the patient to lie down and conduct a mental scan through their bodies, noticing any areas holding tension or negative emotions. This body scan prepares them to stay embodied during the psychedelic experience.

Integration

Psychedelic experiences are often ineffable, meaning that people are incapable of describing them in words. Integration is a key process where a therapist and patient work together to help make sense of and better understand these experiences.

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During integration, the therapist’s role is to help patients work out what they have learned from their psychedelic experience. The therapist and patient then determine how to connect these lessons to the patient’s everyday circumstances so that they can make positive changes to their everyday lives.

In the ACE psychedelic therapy model, the integration process consists of a three-part structure. In the first stage, patients are encouraged to share as much as they can from the experience.

The second integration phase involves extracting the key lessons and insights from the experience and reflecting on any shifts that have since occurred in the patient’s sense of self.

Integration involves investigating how somebody relates and connects to their identity and purpose, their memories, and everyday life.

The third integration phase is where the therapist assists the patients in identifying any new behaviors, goals, and positive changes that have emerged since the experience.

The integration process is particularly concerned with the connection element of the ACE model, as it involves investigating how somebody relates and connects to their identity and purpose, their memories, and their everyday life in light of a psychedelic experience.

Summary of the ACE Model of Psychedelic Therapy

As psychedelic research increases and the prospect of open psychedelic therapy draws nearer, therapists guiding patients with psychedelics must know how to use these drugs most effectively.

By focusing on acceptance, connection, and embodiment, the ACE therapy model helps to increase a patient’s psychological flexibility and maximize the benefits psychedelics have to offer.

Outside of psychedelic therapy, the ACE therapy model pays attention to core themes of wellbeing. Perhaps in the future, we could see this therapeutic model being used as a widespread framework for mental health support at large.

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