The Range Of Results You May Get From Accepting And Rolling With Distressing Thoughts And Emotions

One way to tackle the upsetting thoughts and emotions that interfere with your life is to accept and calmly tolerate them, don't try to fight or change them, and still go ahead with what's important to you. The idea isn't to meekly give into your anxiety or insecurities, but to stop unintentionally strengthening them by getting into a power struggle. The counseling model centered around this approach is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).

No treatment method always works. People can worry they're a lost cause if they try an established therapy and don't get spectacular results from it. I wrote this article to give you a more realistic idea of what you can expect if you try ACT, either with a counselor or using self-help material. I want to reassure you you're not hopeless if it doesn't totally cure you.

In my experience the effect of this approach varies from emotion to emotion, and thought to thought. Just because it doesn't make a difference on every last feeling or self-sabotaging bit of inner dialogue doesn't mean it can't help with some of them. Not all of our thoughts and emotions have the same origin. Some can be influenced by the acceptance and commitment approach, while others aren't as moved by it.

These possible results are assuming someone uses the ACT method properly and gives it a chance. Of course, they may not accomplish much if they do it incorrectly, give up too early, and so on.

Great result

For example, you have a fear of getting noticeably nervous in front of people. You know you sweat and tremble when you're anxious, and worry someone will notice your physical symptoms and harshly judge and reject you for them. Rather than trying to fight and control your anxiety, which just makes you more stressed, you work to make a mental shift to where you're committed to improving your social life, and if any nerves pop up during the process you're going to accept them and keep going. You're able to get into a headspace where you truly don't care about whether you get nervous around anyone or not. This fear loses its power over you, and goes away for good.

I find this outcome can happen if your issues are directly tied to concerns about whether they'll appear or not (i.e., you're scared of being scared). If you can get to a place where the possibility of getting nervous or insecure honestly doesn't bother you anymore, then you've broken the Catch-22. Of course, it's easier said than done to truly not care about something supposedly bad happening, so it's hard to predict who will get this ideal result.

Good result

You worry about people noticing you're a shaky, sweaty mess. You pledge to try to start conversations and meet people anyway. You still fret about being judged, but rather than giving into your nerves and avoiding social opportunities, you go after them.

You are uncomfortable in your conversations, at least in the opening minutes until you naturally calm down for other reasons. It's not fun, but you roll with it. Once or twice someone lightly comments on how anxious you seem. It doesn't feel as devastating as you imagined it would be, but it still gets under your skin. You accept and flow with those emotions too, and don't let them derail you from your goals.

After some time you've made some friends. You're more relaxed in your interactions as well. It's not that you never get nervous, but it doesn't freak you out as much when you are in that state. You don't feel you have to stop everything and run away. You know you can feel your discomfort, keep going, and that the nerves will naturally pass on their own before long.

With this result you haven't addressed the root of your worry, but you've changed your relationship to it. You're able to function better in spite of it, and that's made a tangible difference. Because you're not creating extra stress by fighting it, you feel less distressing emotion overall. You're in a better place, and if you want to do some deeper work to resolve your core issues, it's more likely to go well.

So-so result

You do your best to implement all the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy principles. It helps somewhat. You're a little more able to sit with your anxiety, but for the most part it overpowers you with how gross it feels. You're willing to do some small things you previously avoided. Following the overall philosophy does make you feel a bit better as you go through life. However, practically it's only made a modest impact. That's better than nothing. Even a 20% shift can improve the quality of your life, and be a springboard to make other changes, but it's less than you were hoping for.

You can get this result if your fears are fairly strong, or you really buy into your worries and insecurities. Just vowing to sit with and act in spite of them doesn't do enough to dull their impact on your functioning.

Sometimes a seemingly illogical, maladaptive thought won't go away because it's coming from a part of your mind that thinks the belief is legitimate. It thinks it's trying to help by warning you of a real threat, and it may have a point. Either way, this part of you doesn't want its concerns dismissed as meaningless mental static coming from the Monkey Mind. It doesn't want you to quickly acknowledge its message, then let it float away like a leaf on a stream. It may even chafe at your attempts to ignore it and ramp up your unpleasant emotions to try to get your attention.

Poor result

You try your best to accept and float with your anxiety, and go after the things you value in life. However, you just can't do it. You're just too scared of appearing nervous and looking like a fool. You can't allow yourself to acknowledge and set aside your worried thoughts. You can't help but get sucked into them. You can't make peace with feeling wound up and jittery. You can't convince yourself the valued goal of making friends is worth experiencing some nerves as you pursue it. You agree in theory it would be good to have an Acceptance and Commitment mindset, but you haven't got there.

You can get this outcome if your distressing emotions and self-sabotaging beliefs are very strong. Again, parts of your mind may not like the idea of you gently swatting away its concerns, and push back against what you're trying to do.