Of all the ways to manage anxiety, they usually fall into three categories. The first, is to focus on cognitive strategies – that is, changing anxious thoughts and related behaviours. The second, is to focus on the body, for example to manipulate the body to intentionally de-stress. This might include taking deep breaths or working on muscle relaxation. The third approach is to practice mindfulness, and change the very relationship we have with the anxiety itself. Mindfulness has a very strong evidence base in the literature and completes a toolkit of evidence-based strategies.
Changing our relationship to anxiety entails practicing acceptance of anxiety. But why accept our anxiety? Typically the relationship we have with anxiety is antagonistic, we want to do everything we can to make it go away. When people get anxious, a part of them labels their anxiety as “bad” and wants to get rid of it. To get rid of anxiety, they may do counterproductive things such as worrying oneself out of a difficulty or becoming obsessive and over-controlling to micromanage a problem. This only makes anxiety worse, as it creates a “struggle-upon-struggle.” It is difficult enough to have something to worry about, but when you “hate” the feeling of worrying, you only compound your anxiety. The non-acceptance of anxiety in the moment, not the thing that originally caused your anxiety, is the majority of the suffering in anxiety.
To do this, we need to be able to separate what is causing our anxiety, from the anxiety itself. Most of the problems we have resolve themselves regardless of how much we fret about them. But if we continue to worry about them, the worry becomes a problem in and of itself. Often this can lead people to worry about their worry.
In order to accept, we need to take the position of a scientist, reflecting on our own lives with detachment, curiosity, interest, and inquiry. Just like a biologist observes and describes a new species of amphibians, or a geologist examines an interesting rock formation, scientists do not judge if the phenomena is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, they just are. The phenomena that scientists study are neutral. Anxiety, or any other psychological or physical problem, including pain, is just like that. But as soon as we label something ‘bad’ we create an inner struggle because we want to rid ourselves of bad things, and feel worse when we feel powerless to rid ourselves of these ‘bad’ things. If we remained neutral towards our anxiety, even though the experience is unpleasant, then we are more willing to experience it, and work with it, instead of fighting against it, creating struggle upon struggle. Something may feel uncomfortable, like pain or anxiety, but this does not make it bad. Bad is a moral transgression – like hurting people, stealing, or lying. Anxiety is not bad, it is a negative feeling, and feelings are only feelings.
Let us think about how this might work in an anxious moment. You can feel within yourself worry rising, with the familiar increase in heart rate and knot in your stomach. Instead of shaming yourself, simply notice the sensations. Describe them to yourself like a scientist studying a new interesting phenomenon. Ask yourself what it’s like to experience this, and what it feels like in your body, mind, and emotions. If it feels negative, what makes it that way?
The most common misconception about acceptance, is that if we accept something we must completely accept it forever. It is possible to do that, but it is also possible to do that for even just a short moment. We can accept even a great deal of pain for just a little bit of time, as long as for that time the acceptance is unconditional. This means saying ‘yes’ to it, not ‘yes, but’, as true acceptance must come with no qualification or condition. Try this: Imagine accepting something uncomfortable for even 30 seconds, then allowing yourself to go back to hating it. The next step is to expand the boundaries of your acceptance to 1 minute, then 5 minutes and so forth.
Noticing without judging essentially requires that you “see” your own anxiety, becoming an observer of your anxiety. When you can see something, by default it means there is distance between you and it, and you are less entangled in it. When you cannot see it, you are in trouble because you are caught up in it and you give it the power to control you. Research shows that people who meditate (and you can do this from any spiritual framework, including Christianity) are calmer because they can defuse from their negative experiences and accept them. When you learn to accept, these energies are now freed up to actually live your life with meaning and purpose without having to make all your problems and pain go away. Acceptance frees us up to align with our values to become the people we want to be.
Try doing this next time you’re at dinner with a family member who you find challenging, or you have a mosquito bite you want to scratch.
The research and clinical wisdom tell us that the happiest people on the planet are not necessarily pain-free but are value-rich. Avoiding pain or discomfort is not the most important thing to these people, living out their values is. Before the early 2000s, psychologists were trying to help people get rid of their psychological pain. But, they found that a person without psychological pain is not necessarily happy – happiness is not the absence of negatives (like anxiety) but the presence of positives, like faith, deep personal meaning, and hope. Through acceptance of anxiety, with the help of mindfulness, we can focus more on aligning ourselves with the positives in our life, instead of spending all of our energy trying to ward off discomfort and distress. This helps us create a life rich with meaning and purpose.
Written by Hillary McBride and Alex Kwee