When frustration, anxiety and fear start to cloud the mind, psychologists recommend an approach called acceptance that helps people deal clearheadedly with tough situations
By Elizabeth Bernstein – The Wall Street Journal.
My Uncle Sidney, a retired U.S. Navy physician and Vietnam veteran, has a military phrase he uses as advice for what to do when life is lousy: Embrace the Suck.
He’s dispensed this colorful guidance to me in several stressful situations—when I’ve been anxious on deadline, dealing with a difficult family member, and, most recently, struggling through the pandemic.
“The point is, when you’re stuck, surrounded or suffering, you need to assess where you are, learn to live with it, and try to advance,’’ Uncle Sidney says.
Pretty good advice for our times.
We’re still dealing with the whiplash of uncertainty and the emotions it provokes: frustration, anxiety, anger and fear. To help us through, psychologists recommend an approach similar to Uncle Sidney’s, which they call acceptance.
They define it as the ability to see reality clearly and embrace all our emotions, both pleasant and unpleasant. It’s a focus of a widely used and studied therapeutic approach called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which a large body of research shows helps people feel less anxious and depressed and more resilient and hopeful.
When we practice acceptance—and believe me, it does take practice—we don’t suppress our difficult emotions or bury them in a front of forced positivity. We don’t attempt to control the situation by trying to fix the unfixable. And we don’t fall down a rabbit hole of despair. Instead, we deal clearheadedly with our situation, and we remember that even in life’s toughest moments there is often some good, even if it’s simply a lesson to be learned.
“Acceptance is the opposite of getting stuck,” says Ethan Kross, an experimental psychologist and neuroscientist at the University of Michigan and author of “Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why it Matters, and How to Harness It.”
What strategies can help us focus on acceptance? Here’s advice from the experts:
Too often, we careen from one task to the next. This is the opposite of being present in the moment. And it can create chronic stress that keeps our body’s fight-or-flight response activated.
Pause when you finish a task to take three big breaths before you launch into the next one. Focus your attention on the present. Listen to your heartbeat. Feel the air on your skin. This calms your physiological stress response. And it helps clear out the mental noise.
Also, try doing small tasks at half your normal speed. Wash the dishes slowly. Take a shower slowly. Make…your…coffee…really…slowly.
“The point of slowing down is to introduce patience into your experience,” says Robyn D. Walser, an assistant clinical professor in psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, who teaches ACT to students and other therapists. “And patience gives you a choice. It allows you to be more deliberate and intentional.”
Create a mantra
Research shows that thinking of a word or phrase that affirms our values and silently repeating it over and over leads to a widespread reduction in activity across the brain, primarily in the area responsible for self-judgment and rumination.
“When the brain is spiraling or deluding itself, a mantra gives it something else to focus on,” says Brad Stulberg, an executive coach in Asheville, N.C., and author of the new book “The Practice of Groundedness.”
Mr. Stulberg suggests you pick a mantra that reminds you to slow down and accept what’s going on without trying to fix it or push your feelings away. He recommends: “Don’t just do something. Stand there.” Or: “This is what’s happening. I might as well do the best I can.” Dr. Walser suggests: “Be here now.” And you already know what my Uncle Sidney would say.
Sometimes when we become so entrenched in a stressful situation, we lose sight of anything else. Language can help us see the bigger picture. This is called linguistic distancing.
Dr. Kross recommends talking to yourself as another person would, addressing yourself in the third person to create distance. (“Elizabeth, you’re going through a hard time, but you’re going to be OK.”) This lets you give yourself the advice you would give a friend.
“We make wiser judgments when we think about others’ circumstances rather than our own,” Dr. Kross says. Psychologists call this Solomon’s Paradox. Our brains access different resources when we think about ourselves, versus when we think about others.
Reconnect with your values
Dr. Walser suggests this quick exercise: Close your eyes and think of a sweet memory. Picture it clearly: the sights and sounds, the people who were there. Then ask yourself what was meaningful for you in that event. And give it a name. (When Dr. Walser walked me through this exercise, I pictured swimming with my 10-year-old niece recently and quickly realized “connection” was the value.)
Now take inspiration from the value you recognized and take action right away. (I called my niece, had a fun chat and made a date to see her again soon.)
“Just because there are these super-wicked problems in the world does not mean you give up on what matters to you,” says Dr. Walser, co-author of “The Mindful Couple,” which focuses on ACT for romantic relationships.
Practice a sunset mode of mind
I first learned of this tip from psychologist Steven C. Hayes, the co-developer of ACT and the author of “A Liberated Mind: How to Pivot Toward What Matters.” It’s one of my all-time favorite pieces of advice.
When we witness a beautiful sunset, we typically feel joy, awe, a sense of calm or peace. Yet even as we experience these lovely things, we know that a sunset is also bittersweet. It’s fleeting. It will never happen exactly the same way again.
A sunset mode is a mind-set that allows us to take all of life’s emotions in, just as we would a sunset. I’ve been practicing it a lot lately, as I spend time with my father, who had a devastating stroke a few years ago. It’s heartbreaking to me that he isn’t well. But he is here. He still has his sense of humor. And we have a relationship, even if it is much different.
“There is beauty and sadness in life,” says Dr. Hayes, a psychology professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. “A sunset mode allows you to show up to the whole of it.”
Featured article licensed from the Wall Street Journal