You’re stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the way to the airport.  The babysitter canceled an hour before your meeting.  Your boss just told you the headcount for your assistant got cut.  Want to know how to stop stressing? Practice acceptance.

It may surprise you that one of the best ways to reduce stress and diffuse a stressful situation is to simply to accept it.  Accept the environment you’re in. Accept whatever is happening.  Accept your feelings about it all.  Accept that you are really stressing!

I’m not saying you should be passive or never make an effort to avoid or change something you don’t like.  But practicing this kind of acceptance works more immediately to dial down your stress level. Finding acceptance is often what allows you to be ready and able to make a necessary change.

Acceptance works to reduce stress because it helps you manage your emotions. The true source of stress in your life is not whatever particular thing you think is stressing you out, it’s the emotion that thing is stirring in you (read this post I wrote about the real reason why you’re stressed out).  If you deny those distressing emotions – or ignore them, or misunderstand them – you create stress.  If you want to stop stressing, you need to be in charge of your emotions, rather than your emotions being in charge of you.  This is the heart of Wise Mind Living, and acceptance is the quickest route there.

To be clear, you should definitely change stressful situations and distressing emotions (read about the big 8 emotion families here) when you can.  But there are always going to be times when you can’t change what’s stressing you out – or you’re unable to change anything at that moment. Accepting the situation for what it is allows you to decrease the negative impact on you – to release stress rather than generate it.

Here’s the catch: I can’t tell you exactly “How To Do Acceptance.”  There’s no set of step-by-step instructions.  Acceptance is an attitude, not an action. It’s a state of mind that you cultivate by recognizing the situation, identifying and acknowledging the emotions that are stressing you out, and just allowing it all to be. Tell yourself: “It is what it is, and I can’t change it right now.”

Here’s what acceptance is not: ignoring an emotion or burying your head in the sand, or being a doormat. Acceptance does not mean you stop trying to change the way things are.  Acceptance is not passivity – it’s perspective. It is a choice. When you practice acceptance, it’s like you put the situation and the attendant emotion and stress up on a shelf for a while.  The idea is to put it somewhere you can keep an eye on it, and where you can get it back if you need to, but where it is out of the way for now.

Buddhist philosophy talks about the difference between pain and suffering, but for our purposes here you could substitute “stressing” for “suffering.”  The Buddhist take is that pain is a part of life, no matter what.  Everyone experiences pain.  Suffering (stressing), on the other hand, is optional. Suffering is the result of how we handle pain.  You can’t get a pass on pain, but you don’t have to suffer.  How much you stress is up to you.

You create stress for yourself when you deal with something difficult or painful by ruminating about it, finding others to blame, and generally telling yourself how terrible it is and how overwhelmed you are by it. When you do those things you are practicing non-acceptance – you are struggling against the situation rather than admitting to yourself that whatever it is is happening, and that’s just the way it is.

If you’re stressing, you’re not accepting.  If you’re not accepting, you’re going to be stressing.  Want to not be stressed? Practice acceptance.

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© 2015, Erin Olivo, PhD

About the Author

Erin Olivo, Ph.D.

Erin Olivo, Ph.D., is an assistant clinical professor of medical psychology at Columbia University.

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