Feeling Anxious? Practicing Acceptance Can Help You Cope with Anxiety
Dr. Nahal Delpassand shares strategies to help shift from avoidance to acceptance when coping with anxiety
By Dr. Nahal Delpassand
Photographs by Claire Schaper
Dr. Nahal Delpassand, a licensed psychologist with a private practice in central Austin, works with adolescents and adults on issues including chronic illness, disability, disordered eating, body image, life transitions, depression and anxiety. In this piece she writes about how acceptance rather than resistance can help people cope with anxiety.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder is defined as excessive worry about a variety of events or activities, such as work or performance at school, that occurs more days than not, for at least 6 months. It is characterized by intense fear and apprehension. People with generalized anxiety disorder find it difficult to control their worry, which may cause impairment in social, occupational or other areas of functioning. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, generalized anxiety disorder is the most prevalent mental health concern, affecting 6.8 million adults or 3.1 percent of the U.S. population. This number has increased from 2.7 percent the previous year. Women are twice as likely as men to be affected.
While these statistics are staggering, they’re not surprising to me. Most of my patients report some level of anxiety when they first come to my office for counseling. We live in a fast-paced society that places demands on our time and attention, and this can make it more difficult to feel well equipped to cope with heightened levels of worry. Our mental immune systems are just as susceptible to shut down as our physical immune systems. When we feel overwhelmed with numerous stressors it leads to decreased ability to respond and adapt.
It’s important to understand that anxiety is a crucial emotion that is useful in our lives. Anxiety allows us to assess our environment to determine whether it is safe or dangerous. Feeling anxious before a test, public speaking or during a first date is a normal response to life stressors. In contrast, maladaptive anxiety responses are excessive and disproportionate to everyday life events and are characterized by a chronic pattern of avoiding people, places and/or situations. Patients often feel afraid of the physical and emotional symptoms of anxiety and in turn avoid what causes of those feelings. This interferes with day-to-day functioning and increases dissatisfaction with their quality of life. In my experience, when patients keep avoiding what they value most to control their anxiety, they experience significant distress.
What is the relationship between anxiety and acceptance?
We cannot avoid worrying in our lives. Patients often say they want to be free of experiencing anxiety. But wanting to “get rid” of anxiety can also make it worse. Remember that our thoughts and feelings help us interpret our experience, including those that make us anxious. Acceptance, versus denial or avoidance, is a strategy that can be used to deal with anxiety. It is an active stance that promotes flexibility in the way we observe our thoughts, because it is based on curiosity rather than criticism. It is not passive; it is a purposeful embrace, a normalizing integration of anxiety-producing events into our everyday life. By normalizing it, anxiety can be dismantled of its power.
Ultimately, it is not the experience of anxiety in and of itself that we need to conquer. The response to anxiety is what determines distress or relief. So, instead of denying our feelings or running away from them, we “allow and accept” them as reasonable and healthy, even if they are uncomfortable. For example, when dealing with a life transition it is normal to be scared and apprehensive. Thus, acceptance can be used to acknowledge fear and uncertainty instead of suppressing it. Acknowledging that experience helps us to deploy the proper coping strategies that aid in relief. When we begin to fight our thoughts and feelings it diminishes our ability to respond adaptively.
The following are three strategies to help shift from avoidance to acceptance when coping with anxiety:
1. Be curious towards feelings of anxiety instead of judgmental. Curiosity creates space between our thoughts and feelings. Ask yourself questions about your experience rather than telling yourself you should not be feeling this way. When there is less judgment there is more motivation towards finding solutions that provide relief.
2. When we experience anxiety about something, it is often a sign that we need to pay attention to it. Emotions are alarms that can help focus our attention to parts of our lives that we may be not be paying attention to.
3. Remember that our minds are responsible for cultivating endless thoughts. Accepting your thoughts does not mean you believe or act on every thought that you have. Remember you have a choice in how you respond to your thoughts.