I sat on top of the hill thumbing through my book on coping with uncertainty, while practicing the breathing exercise I'd learned.
Anxiety as Energy
For years, I fought with anxiety. It felt impossible. Then one day, I realized I didn't have to struggle. My anxiety is a manifestation of my energy.
In acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), it is understood that anxiety is something most people like to avoid (Luoma, Hayes, and Walser, 2007). Yet, these avoidance, or anxiety-control strategies, are not always effective. In trying to become less anxious, many find their anxiety magnified.
Control strategies are any efforts taken to make anxiety go away or control it. This can range from seemingly harmless things like affirmations to addictive behaviors or rage. Most people who struggle with anxiety can make a whole list of things they have done to get rid of it. Sadly, in the process, these control strategies bring us away from what matters. While focusing on ridding ourselves of anxiety, it is hard to think of or do much else.
Acceptance and commitment therapy provides an alternative, allowing the anxiety to be there, hearing its message, and moving toward our valued goals. Accepting anxiety is a spooky thought for many. After all, anxiety can be quite aversive.
Why put up with it? Just like pushing a beach ball underwater, pushing anxiety away often causes it to come back with a vengeance (Luoma, Hayes, and Walser, 2007). Imagine being on a raft in the ocean with waves coming and going. You could get off your raft and fight the ocean. But the ocean will fight back and that will be difficult to enjoy.
An alternative is to be on the raft. Rise and fall with the waves. Know that each wave has a beginning and an end. You came out here for an adventure. Enjoy it. Anxiety is like that.
You might think, there is no way I could ever enjoy my anxiety. Perhaps not. Yet, in stepping back and practicing another ACT strategy—contact with the present moment—you may find it to be a bit less terrifying. Anxiety can be like a bully making itself big and scary. Behind all that though, it's just energy. Strategies of acceptance and contact with the present moment can help you to ride through those spikes.
And lastly, remembering what matters and moving forward with it is really where it's all at. Most people's aspirations in life reach far beyond dealing with anxiety. What are your values? What do you want to do? Facing anxiety is often worth moving forward.
There's one final secret: It works. While banishing anxiety is quite contrary to ACT, it is an evidence-based practice for anxiety.
The Evidence for ACT
One study found that individuals participating in ACT had comparable decreases in anxiety as those receiving traditional cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a first-line anxiety therapy (Arch et al, 2012). In fact, ACT participants had significantly lower clinical severity ratings than Cognitive Behavioral Therapy participants after 12 months.
Today, I cannot say anxiety is my friend. But, I'm not trying to kick it out of the house. I am focused on living a life based on my values instead, and I'm becoming more friendly toward my natural energy.
Arch, J. J., Eifert, G. H., Davies, C., Vilardaga, J. C. P., Rose, R. D., & Craske, M. G. (2012). Randomized clinical trial of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) versus acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) for mixed anxiety disorders. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 80(5), 750.
Luoma, J. B., Hayes, S. C., & Walser, R. D. (2007). Learning ACT: An acceptance and commitment therapy skills-training manual for therapists.