Would you believe me if I told you that some people don’t feel anxiety at all? They just go about their days not worrying, not stressing over decisions to be made, over conversations already taken place. They’re not worried about that weird pain in their leg or the phone call that they haven’t yet received. They just live in the moment. They think about hopeful things for the future or good memories from the past. Sure, they have negative thoughts, but they’re not ruminating thoughts that make them anxious or cause those heart flutters with which so many of us are familiar these days.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the World Health Organization reports that there has been a 25% increase in the prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide. We’ve experienced so much history in the making in the past 3 years. From politics to cultural shifts, to health concerns, to social isolation, to grief and loss…it’s just a given these days that we’re all at least a bit more anxious than we were a few years ago.
If you find yourself dealing with anxiety for the first time, or even if it’s something you’ve struggled with for years, there are tried and true methods to cope. Acceptance can be a powerful antidote to anxiety and has been explored in psychology through Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Mindfulness practices. Instead of trying to fight against anxious thoughts and feelings, the idea is to learn to accept them without judgment. Too often, we fight out anxious feelings. It can seem counterintuitive to learn to accept them, but in the long run, learning to do this can be healthy. This often involves learning how to step back from anxious thoughts and observing them without necessarily engaging them. By not identifying with an anxious thought or feeling, it can help us become less entrenched in our experience which can reduce levels of anxiety.
What does it mean to accept an anxious thought?
We’ll use the example of our friend Dorothy. Like many of us, she’s got a lot on her plate. She teaches school, takes care of her mom, and still tries to make time for family and friends. She also suffers from anxiety. Sometimes her heart races and when this happens, she has intrusive thoughts that her heart racing means she’s going to have a heart attack and die. She can actually visualize her heart exploding. Now, every logical thought within her tells her this isn’t going to happen. She’s even been to a cardiologist. She’s had her heart checked out. She knows this isn’t possible. But, when she’s anxious, the intrusive thoughts tend to take over. She gets stuck in a loop and can’t find her way out.
With Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, her therapist has taught her the steps to accept her thoughts, as intrusive as they may be, as just thoughts. Those steps go like this –
– Cognitive Diffusion – We are not our thoughts. Even though she physically feels her heart racing, which triggers these intrusive thoughts of her heart exploding, Dorothy is not her thoughts.
– Acceptance – We can be with difficult thoughts without struggling with them. Dorothy has learned through therapy that this is where logic comes in. The thought may not go away, but even though it’s still there, it doesn’t have control over her, and it isn’t going to cause her to suffer.
– Contact/Connection with the Present Moment – The present moment is the only time we can take action or be happy. Dorothy knows that even when her heart is racing and she is thinking those thoughts, she still ultimately has control over her happiness.
– The Observing Self – Development of the part of us that is consistent. Dorothy remembers that her heart has fluttered before. She’s also had these thoughts before. She’s also had her heart checked out and knows it’s fine. This will pass. It always does.
– Values Clarification – This helps you identify what is the most important part of you, your deepest desires and helps you build a guide to live by. Dorothy is a faith-based woman. She’s independent, strong, and determined. She doesn’t like feeling out of control, especially of her own thoughts or her own body. So, feeling anxious literally makes her feel anxious. It’s a vicious loop that she has to clearly recognize.
– Committed Action – This is your change maker. This is where you set goals, guided by your values, and develop tools to address difficult thoughts and feelings which might get in the way of your committed action. This is where Dorothy commits to breaking the loop and realizes her own strength starting at the beginning of not becoming her intrusive and anxious thoughts. She is strong enough to break the loop. She is strong enough to recognize that the feeling of anxiousness is just that, a feeling. She’s bigger than a feeling and feelings are temporary.
You’re Not Alone in Your Anxiety
During her Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Dorothy’s therapist has taught her a few tricks for how to cope with her anxiety. The first of which is not feeling ashamed of it. The silver lining of the post-pandemic world we’re living in is that a much brighter light has been shined on mental health in general. It’s much less taboo for one to admit that they struggle with anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues. There is definitely power in numbers when it comes to coping with anxiety. Still, there are some who would seek to make others feel ashamed or weak for feeling anxious. I’m here to tell you those people are wrong. Period. The more we all share and talk about how we’re feeling, the more we’re able to increase the attitude of acceptance of anxiety. Realizing that so many others feel the same things she does, helped Dorothy tremendously in accepting her anxiety.
The Impossible Game
Another tool recommended by anxiety counselors during Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is called The Impossible Game. This tool developed by Nevada Foundation Professor of Psychology, author, and speaker, Dr. Steven C. Hayes, goes like this – when you experience anxious, inner resistance to doing something, to taking a useful action – the game begins. For example, your alarm goes off at 6:30 am. You promised yourself the night before that you’d get up and exercise before starting work the next day. But your first, second, or third, instinct is to hit “snooze” and get another half hour of sleep. There’s always tomorrow, right? That’s when the Impossible Game begins. You challenge yourself to hop out of bed, put on your gym clothes, and do what you said you were going to do.
This one tiny decision leads to another, and another. Soon making those seemingly impossible choices empowers you to feel more in control. Even though it’s just a silly challenge, you start small and then raise the bar. The Impossible Game, as Dr. Hayes puts it, is a daily reminder that we’re able to go beyond our self-set boundaries simply by making a choice.
Also practiced by Dr. Steven C. Hayes is a tool he calls Practicing Opposites. This is a bit more advanced and should only be practiced when you feel comfortable. He explains it as literally doing the opposite of what your fearful or anxious feelings or thoughts are telling you to do. This is very much a “face your fears” sort of therapy. For example, if I’m feeling anxious about speaking in front of a crowd, the Practicing Opposites tool would have me stand in front of a crowd and speak. No one would force me to do it and I’d have the option of not doing it, but the action of doing the opposite of what anxious emotions are telling me to do is powerful.
Some Things are Out of Our Control
While deciding to work out in the morning or to speak in front of a crowd, or even coming to the self-realization that there’s no shame in feeling anxiety are all things that are somewhat within our control, we must come to terms with the idea that some of our experiences are out of our control. Accepting that there are parts of life that no matter how hard we try, we simply cannot control is essential for coping with anxiety. By embracing this concept through acceptance-based therapies and practices we can learn how to respond more effectively when faced with difficult situations or overwhelming emotions.
Mindfulness and Hope
By learning how to be more mindful of your triggers, and how your thoughts can loop, as well as some coping mechanisms and tools for how to escape those anxious loops, you can gain control of your anxiety. You can live in the moment and stop stressing over things that didn’t use to bother you. At MUV Counseling, our therapists are non-judgmental and compassionate and are here to help you learn what you need to move through life with less stress and anxiety. Reach out today for a free consultation.