When faced with physical or mental illness, hardship, or adversity, common wisdom tells us that we need to “fight" in order to overcome. What about taking the opposite path? Can "giving in" and accepting our circumstances be equally or even more effective in navigating our journey through tough times?
The numbers of people looking for mental health advice has spiralled upwards during the COVID crisis. Helplines have reported rising call rates and counselling service Beyond Blue was prompted to set up a dedicated Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Support Service to cope with the extra demand. “This pandemic is affecting those who live with mental health issues, and those who have never struggled before”, Georgie Harmon, CEO of Beyond Blue, said. But if a global pandemic has taught us anything, it’s surely that we can’t directly fight forces beyond our control. Lockdowns, loss of work, and the physical and mental impacts of social distancing are all things that we have to simply accept as part “the new normal”.
This idea of embracing acceptance as a way of dealing with tough times has long been discussed in literature and popular culture, with varying degrees of accuracy some of which we might take with a pinch of salt.
The influential Buddhist author Pema Chödrön describes this acceptance of life’s hard knocks as “leaning into the sharp points”, and “bringing whatever we encounter into the path”. These are life skills, she says in her book When Things Fall Apart (Heart Advice for Difficult Times) and practicing them consistently, although hard, sets us up to exchange fear and negativity for joy and ease in our lives. “It’s not a terrible thing that we feel fear when faced with the unknown. It is part of being alive, something we all share. Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.”
When Australian singer and musician Clare Bowditch was in the early stages of her career and drowning in a sea of daily panic attacks, a coping mechanism she affectionately called “FAFL” helped to calm her fears and keep her on track. She credits this sanity preserving tactic (an acronym for “Face, Accept, Float, Let Time Pass”) as being the crucial factor in her eventual recovery.
Mark Manson, a hugely popular blogger and best-selling author, is also an enthusiastic advocate of acceptance. He advises his followers against “must-feel-good-at-all-costs” brands of pop psychology in favour of embracing our emotional ups and downs. “You don’t build psychological resilience by feeling good all the time. You build psychological resilience by getting better at feeling bad”, Manson says. He suggests that we can “grow through pain” and should look at anxiety as a launching pad rather than a condition which should be squashed and denied. “It’s not about getting rid of stress”, he says, “but simply harnessing it to propel you forward.”
Physical illness presents additional challenges - giving in and “going with the flow” in the face of sickness and pain can seem counter-intuitive and just plain wrong. Journalist Julia Baird, who recently released Phosphorescence - On Awe, Wonder And The Things That Sustain You When The World Goes Dark, wrote a moving essay for the New York Times after being diagnosed with a life-threatening condition and undergoing gruelling surgery. She talked about how many people in these situations take on a “warrior” mentality as a means of coping. But for Baird, the calm acceptance of her situation was where she found strength.
It’s clear that the idea of acceptance is popping up everywhere from buddhism to the blogosphere. But these varying opinions aside, how can we apply it to good effect in our lives?
A growing number of mental health practitioners are showing how Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or “ACT”, can be a powerful and transformational treatment. This type of therapy encourages patients to be aware of their thoughts without judging, fighting, or rejecting them. Accepting reality can be difficult and of course it’s a natural human reaction to avoid pain and disappointment. But in doing so we simply add an extra layer of suffering to our pain. ACT teaches us that, from a place of acceptance, we can single out the values that are important to us and commit to making those values the driving forces for our decisions and actions.
According to Dr Vincent Fogliati, Clinical Psychologist at the Sydney ACT Centre, "ACT is about providing us with the tools to be who we want to be. To live a life that is rich, full and meaningful in a way that enables us to embody our deepest values. And what can get in the way of that process is not so much our thoughts and our feelings, but our struggles with our thoughts and feelings. If we experience anxiety or a self critical thought our focus then shifts from living the life that we want, to getting rid of the psychological content that we don’t.” It’s that shift in focus can create problems for us. As Dr Fogliati points out, “In the case of panic attacks, for example, it’s often the anxiety about the attacks that contributes to a panic cycle and immobilises people. What distinguishes ACT from other forms of therapy is that it’s about letting go of the struggle with those thoughts and feelings. Reminding ourselves that a good life is not just about the absence of anxiety or a low mood but about a connection with what really matters.”
He says, “One thing that ACT is very clear and very explicit about is that humans suffer. Experiencing anxiety, depression or anger doesn’t mean that you have a clinical problem necessarily but that you are experiencing something that’s part of our shared humanity.” And this realisation can be very liberating. “The fact that it’s called “ACT” is a little clue that this is about action instead of struggle. It’s ultimately about what we can do to move towards our values.”
How to incorporate acceptance into your life:
- Acknowledge that your thoughts and feelings are not your enemies. Accept and observe them, however uncomfortable.
- Ask what your feelings are telling you about what’s wrong with, or missing, in your life. Are you craving social connection? More time spent in nature? A better relationship with a family member? A job where you feel more fulfilled?
- Take action. Let the things you value be the drivers of your decisions.
- If you are faced with serious issues and can’t cope alone, get help from a GP who can refer you to a psychologist or mental health professional.