If you have stress, worry, or (gulp) even anxiety attacks, you know how frustrating and exhausting it is. And even though you know you shouldn’t “sweat the small stuff” and that it’s a waste of time to worry about things, you keep doing it anyway. In fact, I’m sure you’ve noticed that everyone considers being stressed a new- and acceptable- normal. Yikes.
I’ve been helping people with anxiety (and it’s equally annoying cousins, stress and worry) for over 20 years and I know how daunting it can feel to transform. When starting to work with me, my clients usually describe having few actual tools to use or relying on an age-old strategy of trying to push away or ignore their stress. As Dr. Phil might ask “How’s that working for you?” Usually the answer is not so good. You might be really surprised when I reveal the
#1 go-to trick that will seriously reduce your stress, worry, and anxiety because it will be the opposite of what you would imagine.
For example, if you feel an anxiety attack coming on, your instinct is to run from it, to push it away, to keep it form happening by fighting it. And if you feel stressed, your impulse is to try to move faster, bark orders, or do more so that you can fix whatever is stressing you. But believe it or not, I am going to tell you that the best strategy you can use if you feel stress, worry, or anxiety coming on is to go into i.
“What?” , you say. “This lady is crazy herself and she’s a psychotherapist? She is recommending that, just as I am about to become frustrated by my day or descend into the hell of an anxiety attack, I should just let it happen?”
Well, no, not exactly. But that’s close. Let me explain.
My suggestion is called Radical Acceptance, a Buddhist technique that says if we accept what IS so wholeheartedly and completely, it will enable us to then change. See, the problem is that most of the time we don’t accept what is true in the moment and this makes us much less able to shift and transform because we haven’t totally grasped where we already are. Running from what we fear causes stress. Being with it, making friends with it. tames it.
Radically Accept Stress? Seriously? Let me give you a concrete example. So let’s say you have 7 deadlines for work all due within an hour, a big meeting later this afternoon, your starving, and you just got a run in your tights. Typical Monday morning stuff. Your habit would be to get really ramped up, try to do several things at once, maybe yell at- or cry to- the nearest person close by, and scramble to get it all done, probably spilling your coffee or slamming your finger in the car door along the way. Later at night you will beat yourself up for not doing a good enough job (even though you were great), for being a jerk (for being a little too assertive with your child/partner/employee), and for the bag of chips and glass of wine (actually 2) you just consumed to numb and reward yourself. Sound familiar?
How would using Radical Acceptance help this scenario? First, before you even go to work, start talking to yourself with total acceptance, like this: “This morning I have many things to accomplish. I accept that I have set up my day this way. I also know and accept that I will get done what I can. I accept that it may not all happen perfectly.” This will help to reduce the pre-work anxiety. Later, as you feel yourself getting stressed or tense during your morning, use Radical Acceptance by talking to yourself aloud like this: “I am starting to get stressed. I can feel my body tense and my mind race. I am feeling frustrated that I have so much to do. But I can only do one thing at a time. I am going to take a very deep breath into my belly and simply slow down enough to do one thing at a time. I am present.”
By describing to yourself aloud what is happening in your body, how you feel, and then what you are going to do to problem solve, you are Radically Accepting the situation. It will instantly calm you down and enable you to handle your situation with presence and grace, instead of panic and pressure.
“Acceptance” and “Anxiety Attacks”. Isn’t that, ummm, counterintuitive? Not at all. In fact, Radical Acceptance is your immediate way out of hell if you are panicking. Let’s say you have had a few anxiety attacks over the last year. When they happen your heart beat races, you feel like there is an elephant sitting on your chest, your body shakes, your paranoid that people can tell you are freaking out on the inside, and you mind is foggy and preoccupied with wondering if you are about to die. One of the main problems with this experience is that it leaves you petrified of the next time it will happen again. Now you fear your next fear response, you have anxiety about having an anxiety attack. You worry that you are not in control of your own body, emotions, mind, or behavior and without that what do you have?
Here’s what to do: When you feel the symptoms of anxiety coming on, begin practicing Radical Acceptance. Describe aloud what is happening.
“My heart is starting to race and my mind is getting overwhelmed. I am sweating. I am beginning to have some simple anxiety. That’s all. I am feeling stressed by something and it is causing adrenaline in my body. That’s all it is. I will take deep breaths and sit still for a few minutes. This will help.” Yep- I’m telling you to go right into it. Don’t avoid it. Describe it and feel it and tell yourself that it is just stress. This will help you be okay with WHAT IS much and shift you into the solution. Breathing, sitting still, calming down.
Radical Acceptance 1-2-3-4-5
- 1) Stop moving, slow down. Become present and aware of yourself.
- 2) Describe what is happening, preferably aloud. I am having anxiety.
- 3) Describe how you feel in your body. My heart is racing and I am sweating
- 4) Describe your emotional feelings. I feel fear and worry.
- 5) Now tell yourself this is only an excess of adrenaline in the body and can change quickly.
Now begin your belly breathing to reduce the adrenaline in your blood stream and repeat “I radically accept that I have too much adrenaline in my blood and this can get better very quickly.”
But Isn’t Acceptance Approval? Nah. Acceptance is just being in the NOW. We don’t approve of stress, we don’t want it, but since we have it we need to befriend it’s existence in order to work with it and change it. And if there is anything I’ve learned from helping both the people who have the garden variety of unhappy stress or those with intense anxiety, fighting what is only makes things worse.
Keep in mind that, like hot sauce, you can use Radical Acceptance on everything. It’s not just for stress, worry, and anxiety. Try it on your next problem and see what happens!
Beth Miller is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Certified Life Coach, energy healer, and spiritual counselor in private practice in Sayville, Long Island, New York USA. She has one foot firmly planted on the earth while the other is exploring the spiritual mysteries of energy. She works with individuals in person and via telephone, teaches workshops and groups, and has a lively youtube channel in which she teaches tools to cure anxiety and get in the flow of life. She is the author of The Soul Cure For Anxiety: The Ultimate Modern Therapy To Be Calm, Cool, and Connected (no matter what happens in life), a program that delivers the most effective therapy treatment to the inbox of anyone and everyone who wants to radically change their stress, worry, and anxiety. In USA 631.327.0090