Acceptance – the first step for managing anxiety
Often people who come to counselling because they have anxiety have come to get rid of it. They are fed up with it and will look to the therapist to wave a magic wand that will erase their anxieties quickly. This desire is often encouraged by their loved ones, who are alarmed by their symptoms, which they find hard to cope with.
When I first talk to clients about acceptance being a key to coping with anxiety, they are surprised and sometimes a little disappointed. I will reflect that that is perhaps not what they want to hear and am more often than not met with a resounding response like, "Yes, I just want to be free of it!"
With symptoms that can include a sense of dread, restlessness, a fast or irregular heartbeat, feeling sick and trembling or shaking, it is not surprising that people come to therapy hoping for a magic cure. The all-consuming nature of their present worry or fear can be exhausting for them and those close to them. Anxiety can also stop people from taking risks and just getting on with their lives. And, when you consider what happens when someone has an excessively anxious response, that is not surprising.
People with intense anxiety are likely to react to certain triggers which lead to a whoosh-like feeling of fear. The triggers include sensations, thoughts and memories and the whoosh signals to them that other feelings and thoughts are on their way. For example, a triggering thought for someone with social anxiety might be, "Covid lockdown restrictions are easing and I am seeing College friends tonight!" This may then lead to a second thought, "What if I say something and everyone thinks I’m stupid?" This thought in itself will increase a sense of panic and escalate the anxiety.
For someone with health anxiety, a trigger might be a sensation of light-headedness, which may then lead to a fear that this sensation is linked to a serious medical condition. As anxiety itself induces intense emotions like these, people can become even more overwhelmed by the strong feelings and thoughts resulting from their initial worry than the worry itself.
A negative chain reaction is now set in motion. For the person with social anxiety, such a reaction can lead to avoiding social interaction and completely isolating. And, for the person with health anxiety, it can lead to a visit to Accident and Emergency as they fear for their life.
So, what part does acceptance play?
A therapist can work with you to help you to become more aware of your anxiety triggers and responses and to normalise anxiety - after all, everybody experiences it to some degree and we all have intrusive thoughts from time to time. It becomes a problem when it causes extreme distress.
Accepting anxiety is the beginning of the process of disengaging from it, which makes sense as people usually keep anxiety thriving by trying to get away from the chain of distressing thoughts and feelings it provokes.
Becoming familiar with just what sets it off in the first place and the cycle of distressing thoughts that follow is empowering as it enables you to begin the process of changing your relationship with anxiety. The initial whoosh of anxiety or fear is activated when a part of the brain called the amygdala is aroused. It is an automatic event and cannot be suppressed. However, the good news is that we can detach from the feelings that follow.
Instead of battling with the distress that arises from the initial experience of anxiety, an acceptance of it can free the individual from an intense and frightening engagement with its symptoms. In time, the need to avoid anxious thoughts and feelings, which can be all-consuming for someone with anxiety, becomes less important.
Accepting anxiety is the beginning of the process of disengaging from it, which makes sense as people usually keep anxiety thriving by trying to get away from the chain of distressing thoughts and feelings it provokes. Ceasing to struggle with those feelings means they can begin to lose their potency.
An attitude of acceptance also extends to how people view their anxiety. Many people can feel ashamed of what they consider to be exaggerated feelings of worry and fear. They may also have internalised messages from others - including family members - that they are weak for feeling this way and somehow less than, which will compound the feelings of shame.
A therapist can work with you on your self-acceptance and help to instil a belief that excessive anxiety is neither a sign of failure nor a flaw. After all, an anxious person is so much more than their anxiety, which does not define who they are.
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