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Acceptance is a Skill for Anxiety

This seems backwards at first. Anxiety is the enemy, right? Surprisingly the fastest way to reduce anxiety is to accept it. Here is how it works.

Man sitting at the waters's edge with acceptance

This approach to anxiety comes from an evidence-based kind of counselling called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.

Anxiety is the Enemy?

In counselling offices, clients with anxiety come seeking relief. They just want it to end somehow. They may have already put much effort into dysfunctional coping strategies such as substance use, avoiding people and situations, and telling others and themselves that "I'm fine." All that has been an effort to avoid the feelings of anxiety.

Ironically, by practicing avoidance, we make anxiety the enemy, battling to get rid of it, anxiety becomes the star of our show, stealing the spotlight from everything else that matters to us.

In his book Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life, Stephen Hayes describes what happens when we try to avoid anxiety. Like the Chinese finger trap pictured below, the harder you pull, the harder it grips your finger. The only way to escape is to stop trying to get out.

chinese finger trap illustrating struggles with anxiety
Fighting anxiety just makes it grab tighter.

Picture a tug-of-war with your anxiety. You pull as hard as possible to win the war, but your anxiety pulls back just as hard. You are equally matched in an endless struggle. Stephen Hayes proposes a new way to end the tug-of-war: Drop the rope.

In place of struggling with anxiety, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) recommends a new stance of acceptance or willingness toward distressing thoughts and feelings. It is entirely normal for us humans to go through cycles of distress and calm. As we let worried stressful thoughts just pass through us, anxiety starts to take a smaller and smaller portion of our mental energy.

Anxiety about Anxiety

Sometimes anxiety comes in two parts.

  • Part One - Anxiety that is triggered by something external that worries you such as social situations, financial pressure, or something dangerous. This anxiety comes for natural reasons. When it gets excessive, you will naturally start seeking coping strategies to help manage those feelings.

  • Part Two - As if a voice inside you says "Oh no, my anxiety is back! This is terrible!" A cascade of thoughts and feelings begins, focused on worrying about the anxiety that first appeared in response to a trigger. Now you have double the anxiety you started with. Often when I point this out to counselling clients, they find it fairly easy to shed these worries about anxiety.

Many people find they can dispense with part two using acceptance. By taking a breath and speaking to themselves, with kindness, something like, "Yes my anxiety is back, and that's something that happens to me, so I will just let it pass through me. I will keep focusing on what's important about today." Doing so does not make anxiety go away, as we wish it would. It does free us from the need to battle with anxiety symptoms. This is disengaging with anxiety, giving it a smaller place in our world.

Practicing Acceptance of Anxiety

This is something we work on in counselling sessions, and here is a short version that you can try yourself in three steps. These steps are described by Russ Harris in his ACT book "The Happiness Trap." He calls it "dropping anchor." Find a quiet location with a comfortable chair and go through these steps:

1. Acknowledge your thoughts and feelings

As you sit quietly, notice the thoughts and feelings showing up inside your mind. Notice the anxious feeling that is inside your body. Silently name it by saying, "I notice a feeling of ________ inside me." Also, name the anxious thoughts that go through your mind. Decide that it will be okay if those thoughts and feelings are there for now.

2. Connect with your body and the world around you

Feel the floor with your feet; feel how the chair holds your body. Take some deep breaths and observe how breathing works. Notice the room or environment around you. See the details and colours. Notice what you hear too. Even take time to notice you are there.

See if you can calmly let the feelings of anxiety or the worried thoughts just be there as you stretch your arms or neck, push your feet into the floor and breathe deeply.

3. Engage and circle back

Notice what you are doing here. Then go a bit deeper. Name in detail the anxious thoughts and feelings that are inside. Notice how they want to pull all of your attention. Then pay attention to the environment you are in again, flex your body and notice what you see and hear or smell. Go through this circle a few times.

By the end of this little exercise, you may find something has shifted in the way you feel. You may be more ready to handle the day, even with some anxious feelings fluttering around in your body. They may be less significant now.

Refocus on Values

Values are the qualities of living that matter to us. They are not goals for the future; they describe the kind of person we want to be, right here, today and this week. What kind of person do you want to be? Here are just a few possibilities:

  • Accepting

  • Assertive

  • Compassionate

  • Contributing

  • Courageous

  • Flexible

  • Fun

  • Kind

  • Responsible

  • Skillful

For a more extensive values list, see this page by Russ Harris

When you choose to focus on being the kind of person you believe in, some of your internal struggles become more tolerable. Similar to the pain you feel if you exercise, or the disapproval you sometimes receive when you make a tough decision, anxiety can be accepted as something that goes with being a caring or thoughtful person. Would I rather be numb to risks and the suffering of others? Can I accept anxiety being with me as I strive to be the best I can be?

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Anxiety

In the ACT model for coping with anxiety acceptance and commitment have specific meanings to guide progress:

  • Acceptance of my thoughts and feelings that cause distress, instead of avoidance.

  • Commitment to living and being the kind of person I believe in.

As we do this, anxiety and worry often diminish, consuming less of our mental energy, allowing us to focus on living better.

Dixon Zalit is a counsellor in Vernon BC, offering counselling for stress and anxiety, relationships and other therapy topics.



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