The Relationship Between Anxiety and Acceptance
The term “Anxiety” is thrown over the web these days and with the holidays right around the corner, it’s no surprise that stress levels increase and Anxiety can become more prevalent. You may see an abundance of posts on social media or articles focusing on Anxiety and how to cope during hard times of the year. But what exactly is Anxiety and how can we help address it verses avoid it?
Generalized Anxiety Disorder is defined as excessive worry about a variety of events or activities (e.g., work or school performance) 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 (NIMH) GAD is the most prevalent mental health concern affecting 6.8 million adults and 3.1% of the US population. This number has increased from 2.7% last year. In addition, women are twice as likely as men to be affected.
These statistics, while staggering, are not surprising as most of my patients report some level of anxiety when first presenting for counseling in my office. 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, adaptively.
It is important to emphasize that anxiety is an emotion that is necessary and useful to our lives. Anxiety is a crucial emotion that allows us to assess our environment to determine whether it is safe or dangerous. Feeling anxious before a test, public speaking , or prior to a first date represent normal anxiety responses 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. Often, patients express feeling scared of the physical and emotional symptoms of anxiety and 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. Often, patients state that their goal is to free themselves from experiencing anxiety. The premise of expectation related to “getting rid” of anxiety is precisely what makes anxiety worse. Bottom-line, our response to our thoughts and feelings determine our experience. It is important to emphasize that acceptance does not mean being passive towards anxiety. Acceptance is an active stance that promotes flexibility in the way we observe our thoughts because it is based in curiosity rather than criticism. For example, when dealing with a life transition it is normal to be scared and uncertain. Thus, acceptance can be used to acknowledge fear and uncertainty instead of suppressing it. Acknowledging 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 strategies to help shift from Avoidance to Acceptance when coping with anxiety:
- Be curious toward 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 toward finding solutions that provide relief.
- 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 avoiding.
- 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.
Are you feeling a bit overwhelmed or out of control lately? Know a friend or a close loved one who seems a bit frazzled? Be mindful of your thoughts and remember these tips can help you embrace anxiety rather than run away from it. We’re all in this together!