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Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) offers an empirically validated approach to the treatment of PTSD and other trauma-related symptoms like unwanted thoughts, feelings, memories, and nightmares. Trauma survivors often work to avoid these experiences as well as trauma-related situations and cues. Narratives about the self as “damaged” or “broken,” or that their presence can taint others are common in survivors of trauma, and these stories can narrowly define who individuals are and thus how they can act in the world. It is a common misconception that healing from trauma means being able to remove oneself from the trauma and “leave it behind.” This workshop will teach from the ACT approach, which does nearly the opposite—it explores how to make room for difficult memories, feelings, urges, and thoughts as part of living a value-guided and deeply meaningful life. Dr. Plumb Vilardaga will explain, model, and demonstrate the ACT approach as it relates to trauma work. Participants will learn from a mix of didactic and experiential exercises using “real” role plays (asking attendees to tap into their own thoughts, feelings, memories, and reactions as fellow humans) to encourage and deepen emotional experiencing and cognitive flexibility, and particularly as it applies to individuals with a history of adversity.


Jennifer Plumb Vilardaga is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke and a Licensed Clinical Psychologist. She is a peer-reviewed ACT trainer and received her doctorate at the University of Nevada-Reno under the mentorship of Steven C. Hayes, co-founder of ACT. Prior to coming to Duke, she practiced and supervised students at the PTSD clinic at the Seattle VA, and supervised providers learning ACT in VA programs across the country. She has published widely on ACT and co-authored a book on the use of personal values work in ACT. Her current work at Duke involves ongoing research on ACT, mindfulness, CBT, cancer pain management, and coping with other medical issues. She has clinical expertise in chronic pain, substance use disorders, PTSD and trauma recovery, anxiety, depression, coping with illness, and adjusting to disability. She enjoys working with adults, college students, Veterans, and individuals who identify as LGBTQ.

Agenda – Part 1

  1. Didactic: ACT framework and relevance to experiential avoidance
  2. Experiential practices: emotional experiencing and self-in-context\
  3. Verbal nature of PTSD
  4. Experiential practices: cognitive diffusion

Agenda – Part 2

  1. Bringing in values to trauma work
  2. Experiential practices on values
  3. Trauma work with ACT
  4. Discussion

Learning objectives: By the end of this workshop, participants will be able to:

  1. Name at least 2 core strategies of ACT.
  2. Explain the problem of experiential avoidance as it relates to trauma.
  3. Describe the verbal nature of post-traumatic stress.
  4. Introduce 2 core concepts of ACT to clients suffering from PTSD.
  5. Explain at least one application of mindfulness in the ACT model as it relates to trauma.
  6. Practice with at least 2 strategies to enhance emotional experiencing, as it relates to trauma.
  7. Identify cognitive fusion and at least 1 strategy to work with it.
  8. Explain the concept of willingness and how it relates to cognitive flexibility.
  9. Explain the importance of personal values exploration.
  10. Identify at least 2 strategies for incorporating values work into clinical care with trauma survivors.
  11. Apply the self-as-context concept as it relates to trauma.
  12. Name at least 1 reason that avoiding traumatic material can increase suffering


Glover, N., Sylvers, P., Shearer, E., Kane, M., Clasen, P., Epler, A., Plumb-Vilardaga, JC; Bonow, JT; & Jakupcak, M. (2016). The efficacy of focused acceptance and commitment therapy in VA primary care. Psychological Services, 13(2), 156-161.

Hayes, S. C., Levin, M. E., Plumb-Vilardaga, J., Villatte, J. L., & Pistorello, J. (2013;2011;). Acceptance and commitment therapy and contextual behavioral science: Examining the progress of a distinctive model of behavioral and cognitive therapy. Behavior Therapy, 44(2), 180-198.

McLean, C., & Follette, V. (2016). Acceptance and commitment therapy as a nonpathologizing intervention approach for survivors of trauma. Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 17(2), 138-150.

Walser, R. D., Westrup, D., & Hayes, S. C. (2007). Acceptance and commitment therapy for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and trauma-related problems: A practitioner’s guide to using mindfulness and acceptance strategies. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications.

Handouts: printable handouts

Clinical Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Social Work

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