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  • Accepting Anxiety through Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

    When we are faced with uncomfortable emotions and negative thoughts, it is normal to want to “get rid of them” or “push them away.” 

    After all, we as human beings are not wired to sit with discomfort or distress. There still exists an “ancient” part of the brain that responds with fight or flight, no matter if the circumstances are not actually life or death. In heightened states of emotion, our brain sometimes cannot process what is real and what is fiction our brain has created by filling in the gaps. It can only think of what is necessary for survival – what is safe.

    Due to fight or flight, we may respond in ways that may seem irrational in retrospect and engage in “safety behaviors” in order to get rid of the uncomfortable emotions. Those may range from asking others for reassurance, finding the nearest escape route of an anxiety provoking situation or outright avoidance of the trigger. 

    Fight or flight is a necessary part of our brain. Otherwise, we would not bat an eye to a fire alarm going off or run away if an angry grizzly bear is in front of us. However, listening to that fight or flight instinct can lead us to avoid things that may be important to us. We may skip class during an important presentation to avoid the fear of presenting in front of our peers or skip a family gathering out of anxiety of interacting with people we haven’t seen in years.

    There are several different ways to address anxiety and uncomfortable emotions – challenging cognitions, or developing coping skills to manage the intensity of uncomfortable feelings. However, sometimes our attempts to make an emotion “go away” in excess even with the best intentions can make that feeling grow bigger and bigger.

    Imagine being told over and over again “Don’t think of a pink elephant, don’t think of a pink elephant.”

    Naturally, what do we end up thinking about?

    Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) takes a different approach – accepting our emotions and thoughts as they are, not trying to fight or challenge them. One might think accepting the uncomfortable emotions means that we are okay with the emotion, we’re just putting up with it and letting it affect us negatively.

    Acceptance is meant to be viewed as being able to take a stance of neutrality with our emotions, acknowledging that they can exist and are not an indication that we need to fix or change anything. Thoughts are simply words that our brain generates, rather than seeing them as hard truths or problems that need to be solved. This concept can be difficult to implement initially but over time, can be effective in allowing the individual to feel more agency in their life that may feel limited by anxiety or intense emotions.

    Another focus of ACT is values – as mentioned prior, difficult emotions can lead us to avoid things that may be of importance to us. ACT focuses on living a “value-based lifestyle”, letting our values be the guide to our actions rather than our emotions and negative cognitions.

    The focus of ACT is not to “get rid of anxiety” but rather accepting it as a part of our life and continuing to live out our values despite the discomfort.

    If you would like to learn more about how to practice acceptance of uncomfortable feelings, please contact us to see how we can assist you.

    Melissa Aristoza is an Associate Clinical Social Worker experienced in providing CBT for individuals dealing with: OCD, Generalized Anxiety, Specific Phobias, Panic, Social Anxiety and Depression. She supports children, teens, families, and adults in navigating through their mental health journey and assisting them in achieving their personal goals.