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Anxiety

Better Mental Health May Not Mean Exactly What You Think It Does

The real definition, and what it means for anxiety.

Key points

  • Many people think good mental health means reducing your negative emotions to a "normal" level, but this isn't true.
  • Good mental health has nothing to do with the intensity or frequency of certain emotions. It's about acceptance of all emotions.
  • Accepting your emotions as they are will help them pass. This especially helps with anxiety.
Madddstock/Shutterstock
Source: Madddstock/Shutterstock

In my first session with new clients, I ask about what their goals are for therapy. For almost all of them, the first answer is understandably some version of: "I want to feel less anxious." This makes sense; they are suffering greatly and they want to feel relief. But that goal comes from a faulty view of what psychological health actually is that is very prevalent in our society.

When a client seeks my help with an anxiety disorder, they typically believe the problem is that they simply have too much anxiety and that the solution is to find a way to bring the anxiety down to what they consider to be a "normal" intensity and frequency.

They think their problem is that they have too much anxiety too often.

Everybody comes to therapy wanting to improve their mental health. But to do that, we need a workable definition of what good mental health actually is. The above viewpoint is based on the idea that good mental health is having "normal" or "average" levels of "negative" emotion. This is both inaccurate (mentally healthy people can have plenty of these emotions) and unhelpful (because in fact, trying to reduce an emotion makes you suffer more, not less).

The Definition of Good Mental Health

Instead, here is a more accurate and more pragmatic definition of mental health to which I ascribe:

The definition of good mental health is being willing to experience any thought or any feeling at any time, in any place, under any circumstances, at any intensity, for any duration... without defense.

People who do this are psychologically bombproof. They are not unfeeling and they do suffer. But they don't make any of it worse by fighting it, which is the real problem.

One of the biggest constants in the history of the research literature on clinical psychology is that avoiding parts of your experience causes psychological problems, whereas increasing awareness, acceptance, and contact with those avoided parts of your experience improves psychological problems. This is a commonality among all effective treatment approaches. Even Freud's methods 130 years ago were based on this fact.

Move Toward Your Unwanted Emotions

Read my definition of good mental health again. That last part, "without defense," is the key.

People who don't defend against unwanted emotions accept the things they cannot control (like thoughts and emotions). They don't treat emotions like anxiety as problems and so, paradoxically, those emotions cannot become problems.

Anxiety is still there; no one has a complete absence of anxiety. But if it is accepted and experienced willingly, it does not impair functioning and it does not stop the person from doing anything.

Most amazingly and again, paradoxically, this is actually how anxiety decreases. So when my clients tell me their goal is to reduce their anxiety, I tell them that is indeed possible and in fact the typical result of therapy, but the way we get there is actually by giving up on that goal and allowing anxiety to happen. If we set our goals more around changing behaviors in spite of anxiety, we do incidentally end up getting the anxiety reduction. But if we strive for anxiety reduction, we won't get it.

So how do you become willing to have your anxious thoughts and feelings? It is very difficult, but also very simple: Stop doing whatever you are doing to avoid your anxious feelings and the situations that make you anxious. Do what over a century of psychology research says works: Move towards unwanted emotions, not away from them.

LinkedIn image: Madddstock/Shutterstock

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