Feeling Anxious? Of Course
Accepting it may provide a way forward.
Posted March 16, 2020
This week, I read a piece in the Sunday Review of the New York Times by Laura Turner entitled, "How to Be Calm About Anxiety." Turner has had a lifelong struggle with anxiety, often feeling controlled by what she calls the "inherent irrationality" of that all too familiar emotion.
She has tried a great many approaches to controlling the impact of anxiety, but none of them have worked. Until, that is, she found a practitioner of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Her therapist taught her to accept the negative feelings that accompany anxiety, learn from them, but not let them rule the day.
This is where acceptance comes in. Rather than fighting the exhausting daily battle to get rid of anxiety, she was taught to accept it. She even named it. She befriended her anxiety, and by doing so, was able to limit its effect on her life goals and daily activities. She says that "befriending my fear has actually caused its voice to soften."
This is not a new approach. When I practiced as a marriage and family therapist, I used similar techniques, many of which were borrowed from narrative therapy. There is a Zen quality to this strategy in which everything in one's life is embraced, even those things that seem unembraceable. It even puts a different spin on the Christian injunction to "love your enemies," often most difficult when your enemies are within.
Turner reports that the Anxiety and Depression Association of America estimates that as many as 40 million Americans have an "anxiety disorder," a majority of which don't pursue treatment.
I think the numbers today may be closer to 330 million Americans. And I don't think that "disorder" is the right word for what people are experiencing. It may be more accurate to say that we are experiencing anxiety because we are more directly in touch with reality.
COVID-19 has rearranged our lives, our interactions, our travel, our work, our everything in ways that have made us anxious, fearful, unsure, worried. Appropriately so. There is nothing disordered about it.
What is disordered is to deny that something is happening that deserves our anxiety.
I think that what Turner learned from her therapist is good for us all. We are facing something that is currently beyond our understanding or control. Turning away won't help us. Facing it directly, embracing the reality of such anxiety-provoking uncertainty, learning from it, all of this can help us make decisions that minimize the effects of anxiety, shortcircuit the impulse to panic, and enable us to find even the simplest ways to maintain a sense of personal agency (all of us had a mother whose voice we can still hear—"Wash your hands!").
Embracing anxiety is a form of courage. The philosophical theologian Paul Tillich, in his book, Courage to Be, defined courage as the ability to embrace being even in the face of nonbeing, which is to say, live fully and wisely even in the face of uncertain and risk.