Previously, the focus on the treatment of anxiety has been placed on changing, stopping, or preventing anxious thoughts from entering our minds. “Be relaxed. Break free from pain, suffering, and worry!” That is promised by many treatments and it sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? The problem is, being pain free is no guarantee of happiness and vitality in life. Shortcut and fix-it ways of approaching anxiety are not long-term solutions or 30% of the population wouldn’t still be affected by it.
It is as true in many other areas of life as it is in regards to anxiety—trying to gain complete control over something only ensures that you have less control. The more you try to control anxiety, the stronger and more intense it will feel. A great deal of research supports this and led practitioners to develop new and more effective ways of treating anxiety.
This approach is called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which you can read more about here. The goal of ACT is to help you make space for your anxiety, to embrace it. This approach is not just about passive acceptance, though. There’s an active part of this approach too. It is about acceptance AND change. Remember the serenity creed that is very well known in the world of substance abuse recovery? That’s the basic idea.
“Accept with serenity what you cannot change, have the courage to change what you can, and develop the wisdom to know the difference” (Forsyth & Eifert, 2007).
It’s about making space for your anxiety, by learning to accept and live with your uncontrollable anxious thoughts. Simultaneously you can take charge of what you can change: your behavior or what you do with those thoughts. When your time is spent trying to manage your anxiety (avoiding things that make you anxious, performing rituals, suppressing thoughts, replacing “bad” with “good” thoughts, etc), you are pulled away from other things in your life that you value much more.
Think about that for a moment.
What do you miss out on because of your anxious thoughts or feelings?
What if you could embrace those anxious thoughts or feelings, notice that they’re present, pick them up and carry them with you as you go out and do the very things that make you feel anxious and afraid? That’s pretty powerful!
It does not require time-consuming anxiety management practices that are only effective in the short-term and it does not require any special materials. What it does take, however, is commitment. It takes commitment to living with your uncomfortable thoughts and feelings and commitment to learning the skills to sit with them and not act on them.
So if this is an approach that is resonating with you, you’re probably wondering how you can get started. Books are a wonderful way to begin educating yourself on this approach and start learning some new skills. Titles I suggest are listed below. Additionally, you can look for a licensed mental health professional trained in ACT here, which is helpful in gaining understanding about yourself and get constructive feedback as you practice some of these new skills. Lastly, stay tuned for my post next Tuesday for some tips and strategies to gaining acceptance and learning how to embrace anxious thoughts and feelings!
- The Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety: A guide to Breaking Free from Anxiety, Phobias, & Worry Using Acceptance & Commitment Therapy
John P. Forsyth, Ph.D. & Georg H. Eifert, Ph.D.
- The Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Social Anxiety and Shyness: Using Acceptance & Commitment Therapy to Free Yourself from Fear and Reclaim Your Life
Jan E. Fleming, M.D. & Nancy L. Kocovski, Ph.D., Foreword by Zindel V. Segal, Ph.D.
- The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living: A Guide to ACT
Russ Harris, Ph.D., Foreword by Stephen Hayes, Ph.D.
Forsyth, J.P & Eifert, G.H. (2007). The Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.