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Accepting Anxiety: Making Sense of Acceptance

What do you think about accepting anxiety, that thing we hate? Acceptance is a powerful concept that can help us reduce anxiety. It isn't a modern trend, this latest craze in our attempt to manage stress, anxiety, depression, and everything else that challenges our mental health and wellbeing. It's actually an age-old practice with roots in Buddhism and other ancient traditions. It's a component of mindfulness, another concept with ancient heritage. In our modern era, acceptance is well-researched and part of legitimate therapeutic approaches like acceptance and commitment therapy. Yet, accepting anxiety is one of the most difficult concepts not just to understand but to put into practice. 

How Do You Accept Anxiety?

I recently received an outstanding question here at HealthyPlace:

"How do I accept anxiety the right way? [I've heard] '...Just choose to accept your anxiety and then choose to let it go' [but that] is not a helpful explanation. For example, if you asked your guitar teacher how to play a D chord, she wouldn't say, "[U]nderstand that a D chord is neither an E chord nor a jazz solo. If you are struggling with this, just choose to play a D chord," because that is ineffectual, to put it lightly."

I think this metaphor is excellent and conveys the frustration that being advised to "just accept anxiety" can bring. Acceptance isn't easy. That's okay, though, because we don't grow when things are easy. 

The first step in acceptance is one that is too often overlooked: Figure out what in the world it means. 

Making Sense of Acceptance

I love the guitar metaphor the person used in the question. Sticking with it just might help make some sense of this counterintuitive concept called acceptance

If you're learning to play a D chord and keep getting it wrong, you'll know it. Of course, you want to play it right. Your teacher also would want you to play it right. He or she probably wouldn't say, "Oh, just accept that you can't play it and choose to play something else instead."

That wouldn't work and would be both avoiding the issue and giving up. 

Anxiety drives our impulse to avoid problems and maybe even throw in the towel to escape discomfort. In the case of learning to play the guitar, anxiety over playing the chord incorrectly might cause you to refrain from practicing, avoid your lessons and the teacher, and ultimately give up. The only thing you'd accept is that you "can't" play the chord. The result would be suffering, frustration, and continued anxiety. This is not the kind of acceptance that is helpful. 

In wellbeing, true acceptance is different. It's a release from increasing frustration, ruminating, and overthinking. If you're stuck in your problems with the D chord, you might:

  • Become hard on yourself, calling yourself harsh names
  • Tell yourself you'll "never" get it
  • Bully yourself for "always" screwing up
  • Worry about the time and money you're "wasting"
  • Question yourself as a musician
  • Feel performance anxiety

What we focus on is what grows, so hanging onto these anxious thoughts and feelings fuels them until they dominate your experience with the guitar, something that once gave you pleasure. Your stress relief has become stressful and anxiety-provoking. This is where acceptance comes in. 

You don't accept that you're doomed to never get it right. Instead, you accept the process behind it and use it to reduce your anxious thoughts and feelings about the situation. Acceptance involves noticing your anxious thoughts and emotions and then thinking about them differently. 

In the guitar example, you might say, "I am struggling with the D chord, and I don't like it. But it is a single situation. I know that music is complex and learning to play an instrument is difficult. I want to play the guitar well, so I accept that this process might be slow sometimes. I am not going to berate or bully myself because I can't play the D chord easily." 

How Acceptance Helped Me with Social Anxiety

To use another example, consider social anxiety, which I used to experience. I used to have all sorts of worries and negative thoughts about interacting with people, and these interfered in my life. Learning to accept my anxiety was helpful because I looked at my thoughts in a new, freeing way.

When I recognized and acknowledged my thoughts and accepted that I was having them, I could start living my life fully even though the anxiety was still there. I accepted that I would have self-doubt and other negative thoughts and worries and reminded myself that those things weren't necessarily true and didn't have the power to keep me from doing things with others. The anxiety was still there, but it no longer was my focus.

Then, taking action (doing things with others) and accepting that I would still have anxiety let me see that I could interact with people without disasters happening. It gave me the confidence to do more of what I wanted to do. 

Acceptance is

  • A mindset that frees us to live life even though anxiety is present
  • An attitude that allows us to stop struggling and start living
  • One of many tools to help us develop and maintain wellbeing

Acceptance is the process of continuing to practice despite anxious thoughts that ultimately gives us the courage to play that D chord and move onto new chords and challenges in our quality lives. 

Are you accepting of anxiety? Share your thoughts in the comments.

APA Reference
Peterson, T. (2020, May 7). Accepting Anxiety: Making Sense of Acceptance, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, July 9 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/anxiety-schmanxiety/2020/5/accepting-anxiety-making-sense-of-acceptance



Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC

Tanya J. Peterson is the author of 101 Ways to Help Stop Anxiety, The 5-Minute Anxiety Relief Journal, The Mindfulness Journal for Anxiety, The Mindfulness Workbook for Anxiety, Break Free: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in 3 steps, and five critically-acclaimed, award-winning novels about mental health challenges. She also speaks nationally about mental health. Find her on her website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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