Letting go of the struggle: on anxiety and control
Anxious people often believe that they should exert a degree of control over their feelings of uneasiness. One might say that this (usually unarticulated) tactic almost constitutes a default approach for sufferers of anxiety, as it seems so commonsensical: when we have a problem in our lives, we normally accept that we will need to do something to resolve the difficulty. No wonder, then, that when anxious feelings do arise, we find ourselves ardently exerting our will to try and eradicate these feelings.
Yet some schools of therapy caution against this method. ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy), for example, proposes that trying to get rid of your anxious feelings has the paradoxical effect of maintaining them. ACT therapists argue that anxiety sufferers unwittingly play a tug-of-war with their problematic feelings, as the more they try to eliminate their anxiety, the more their antagonist tenaciously remains, or even grows stronger. Perhaps the simplest explanation for why this happens has to do with the idea of secondary anxiety, as struggling against your uneasiness assumes that you haven’t accepted your anxiety, and that you have become anxious about feeling anxious. Non-acceptance, as expressed in a direct attack on your anxiety, therefore only compounds these feelings.
If a steady exertion of will in this context signifies a non-acceptance of your anxiety, with all the problems that might entail, then an alternative and somewhat counterintuitive strategy involves accepting that you feel anxious. In the concrete, accepting your anxious feelings requires that you let go of struggling against them, with an awareness that your fear will, when left to its own devices, cease according to its own idiosyncratic schedule; in the meantime, you should commit to those activities that represent your values and deepest needs, even if - or especially when - they tend to evoke your anxieties.
Addressing your anxious feelings on your own can nevertheless seem daunting at times, so if this approach - or any other - fails to address your problems enough, please seek out the help of a professional counsellor. A pluralistic counsellor can offer you a range of techniques to try so that you find an approach that works especially for you.
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About Alexander Fox
I am a counsellor with three private practices across the country (Harley street, London; Dundee; St. Andrews). I am trained to masters level in pluralistic counselling, and I utilise a wide variety of different therapeutic approaches when working with clients. I also have a doctorate in English literature and my literary training informs my work.