Anxiety and acceptance
When working with anxiety sufferers, it can sometimes seem counterintuitive, perhaps even bizarre, to advocate acceptance as the most constructive way of initially framing their painful predicament. Why this is so is not difficult to discern: many anxiety sufferers arrive at the therapy room primed for taking constructive action, and counselling acceptance as a first step might therefore smack of unthinking defeatism, a complacent and pessimistic refusal to consider how to overcome the problem.
Yet the notion of meeting emotional pain with an attitude of acceptance has a distinguished lineage, not only in the world of formal therapy and contemporary neuroscience, but also in ancient philosophy. In this article, I want to explore some of the ideas related to an attitude of acceptance, and then explain why therapists often advocate it as part of coming to terms with one’s anxieties. My hope is that if you are sceptical, this article will help you, as it were, to accept acceptance as an element of coping and tackling your anxiety.
Below are three interrelated dimensions of acceptance that I wish to highlight:
(1) Acceptance is usually associated with a preparedness to receive that which is not entirely welcomed or desired. Of course, there are the banal exceptions, such as someone saying they will accept a parcel on behalf of another, but more relevantly for our purpose is the kind of acceptance that requires tolerating something that goes against our preferences about how the world ‘should’ be and how we ourselves ‘should’ be. Indeed, acceptance is closely connected to the act of acknowledging the reality of a painful truth about our lives.
(2) Acceptance can involve a prudent awareness of the negative consequences of refusing to tolerate some adversity. For example, an employee might view the outcome of an industrial tribunal unjust, but they might come to accept it, as any defence on their behalf might exacerbate the problem. Acceptance in this sense is not defeatism, as it is a wise avoidance of a battle.
(3) Our sphere of influence in the inner and outer world is limited, and so a key dimension of acceptance is coming to terms with that which we either cannot change or that which might be changed, but not by ourselves. Wise acceptance is a recognition of the extent of how much we control our fate.
Given these three dimensions of acceptance, there are several ways that cultivating an acceptant attitude can prove therapeutic:
1) Taking constructive action to overcome one’s fears seems commonsensical and is usually beneficial at the appropriate time. However, to believe that one’s anxiety should be immediately tackled might be, as counterintuitive as it sounds, an unwise, indeed imprudent choice. Arguably such action constitutes an evasion of the fear, which is itself propelled by anxiety. Accepting one’s anxiety, especially at the early stages of counselling, has therefore a therapeutic effect, as a willingness to endure the discomfort is based on the prudent awareness that resistance would exacerbate the anxiety, since it would instigate getting anxious over one’s anxiety. Such acceptance is not of negligible benefit, as secondary anxiety (i.e. anxious about being anxious) is a common precursor to panic.
2) Acceptance is intimately connected to understanding the nature of one’s anxiety, and to then taking the required steps to tackle it. In contrast, trying to escape the reality of your anxiety might make it difficult to explore what is making you anxious, as understanding requires being able to focus on the experience of anxiety and, by putting it into words, literally come to terms with it.
3) Acceptance can be the antidote to worry about that which is out with our power to change. Quite often anxiety sufferers believe on some level that worry, of the ruminative kind, serves a positive purpose, and yet it only adds to their sense of unease. Acceptance of the limits of our control allows us to come to terms with the many situations in life that will resolve in a way indifferent even to our ardent wishes.
Should you wish for some help in coming to accept your anxiety as a first step in tackling it, please consult a counsellor or therapist, as they can create a safe and empathic environment that facilitates acceptance.
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