Acceptance as an Orientation towards Anxiety
Sweat trickling down, chest discomfort and heart pounding – anxiety is a very real thing. Of the many things I have learned through anxiety, it is this that strikes me as the most curious: To accept is to change.
That has real-life implication for me. And little did I know that will also change the way I view the world.
But back to social anxiety. I refused anxiety. I guess, like most of the people, I am trying to escape what is painful. I will not deny it – anxiety is a very painful experience for me. I have tried – psyching myself that I am not anxious, telling myself that I can deal with this. It worked – in the short term. But it soon crumbled. It was an uphill battle. For most days, I would sit down and try to collect myself, inspiring myself with that Japanese, “Ganbatte!” only to have it wilting as soon as I feel that nervous twitch that I was so familiar with.
What I did not realized was that underlying all these, was a set of beliefs that I held. And through reading, discussions and much self-reflection, I, like many others, have come to the following insights.
First, I realized that anxiety need not restrict us in what we do. We may feel anxious at certain things – but that should not stop us from doing what is necessary. I was told that such an outlook on life is highly unproductive. We should not prefer the emotional-based lifestyle to the action-oriented life. What do I mean? Well, imagine on a lazy Saturday afternoon you might convince yourself that there are chores to be done. But because you felt lazy, you did not do them and in the end, something is left hanging. It would be all right – but think about how permanent your emotions are. Happy? Bored? In the wisdom of Solomon, “This too, shall pass.” Recognize that feelings come and go.
I can, and will continue feeling anxious. No one should and will take away my right to feeling anxious. However, we should not make the mistake of allowing something so impermanent like emotions to decide for us what is permanent. I can feel anxious at talking to people, but that does not always have to lead up to not talking to people, right? I can talk to people anxiously. It’s still talking. And again, we come back to the point that we should not arrange our entire life around anxiety. Anxiety exists and we acknowledge that, but like a spoilt kid, if you are to go with its every whim and fancy, you’d go insane.
Second, acceptance. It’s a powerful tool. Anxiety is painful, trust me on that ;) But there is something bigger than anxiety. That is acceptance. We are designed to escape from anxiety, and anxiety-inducing stimuli. That is how we are wired biologically, and there is no sense in kicking ourselves for being wired like that. Nonetheless, that does not mean we cannot do something about it.
To illustrate my point, I will share my personal experience. I always have qualms about eating with people I don’t know well. I guess, some part of me feels insecure eating outside. I will analyze my every move – the way I eat, does it make me look stupid. And not to mention critical – you idiot, what if they think you’re inept for dropping that piece of chicken on your lap? In short, I was extremely self-conscious about myself.
You get my point. Well, one day, by chance I found myself sitting with my new classmates who felt it was necessary to have me accompany them for lunch. You know those type, they are insistent and if I leave, they’ll pull me back to my seat. I was, in their opinion, too alone.
And again, the experience was quite anxiety-provoking. I was eating carefully, and it was very taxing. Everyone else was talking and laughing. I was however miserable and wanting to get out. I had two options, continue being miserable and tension-filled, or try to enjoy the moment. And I decided on the latter. Obviously. But it wasn’t so easy. I notice thoughts swarming into my head. Do they want you here? They must pity you. Not the most pleasant thought to have. I guessed something in me ticked – exasperated, I retorted with an Ok, and so?
And then no more. I was taken aback. For a while at least. Although occasionally, during then, I had a few more negative thoughts, but they seem reduced in intensity. Muffled, if you will.
It may seem like an unremarkable incident. Eating in public? Really? You might have worse stories to share, and that is fine. But for me, and people with social anxiety disorder, you will know what I’m on about. Tell yourself “I am anxious – I am feeling my hands shaking. I will, however, accept these sensations and thoughts that arise, and see where they will lead me to. ” Of course, acceptance is not just simply telling yourself that – but it makes for a good start.
And there is some basis to what I’m saying. All these techniques are used in therapy to treat anxiety disorder. Mindfulness based therapy, and some variation of CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) base their entire treatment on these approach.
Stanley Schwarz is an author of Reducing Social Anxiety: A Self-Help Approach