I’ve learned a lot about anxiety and how our thoughts and emotions can combine in toxic and psychologically inflexible ways. One of the intervention methods I have found helpful from acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is by now one of the most researched and broadly applicable interventions in behavioral science. Six lessons stand out from this kind of therapy.
1. Let Go of Evaluations. When we experience an emotion, we quickly evaluate it as good or bad, as something we want or as something we do not want. These evaluations often overshadow our emotional experience. We dive into “anxiety is bad” before we even know what we are feeling or where we feel it. Anxiety can present itself in all kinds of ways: from trembling hands to a churning stomach, to electricity flowing through our body. We might feel uneasy, restless even, with a sense of impending doom. Thoughts and fragments of memory flitter through our minds. Odd as it may sound, there is a richness to anxiety as a whole experience that we deny ourselves by immediately labeling this experience as “bad” and rushing to escape from it.
That “voice” you might here is your expression of your inner evaluation and problem-solving that told me I had to run, fight, freeze in place, or hide from “bad” emotions. You probably have your own version of this experience. If you slow down, however, and respectfully decline that command, you can learn from your emotions. You can observe the anxiety. You can ask yourself questions like Where do I feel my anxiety? What is it encouraging me to do? Is it moving? What else am I feeling? Describe the experience of anxiety, appreciate it, and then grow stronger because of it.
2. Open Up to Your Anxiety. Underneath anxiety are often other emotions that ask for attention. There may be sadness, loneliness, regret, jealousy, or even anger. And when we fail to address these other emotions appropriately, more anxiety is likely to follow. The healthy way forward is to open up to anxiety and these other hidden emotions. This means taking a moment to notice and feel the emotions inside of your body. Observe them. Feel them. And then breathe into them and allow them to expand inside of you. You can ask yourself, What else am I feeling right now? and What else is inside of these feelings?
Letting go of evaluations and opening up to your experience is not a one-and-done event. It’s more like an ongoing conversation with someone important to whom you haven’t spoken in a long while. Metaphorically, instead of shutting the conversation down at the earliest possibility, stay curious and learn more.
3. Let Go of Control. Emotional openness often produces peace of mind, but it’s a mistake to assume that means that you can control the content of your emotions. Stay with what you can control: your relationship to your emotions.
4. Look at the Other Side of Anxiety. One reason why it’s so important to open up to our emotions is that underneath difficult emotions are our deepest yearnings. We hurt where we care, and we care where we hurt. I’ve never met a socially anxious person who doesn’t want to be with people. If you are struggling with an emotion, stop and flip it over. What does this emotion suggest you deeply care about?
5. Listen to Your Body. Human cognition is likely only several hundred thousand years old. By contrast, the ability of our animal ancestors to feel and learn by experience is half a billion years old. When you put your problem-solving mind on a leash, you can begin learning from your anxiety and other emotions more intuitively. Focus less on solving challenges and more on experiencing them within your body. This is about what you are feeling. The mindset of observing, describing, and appreciating emotions and sensations goes beyond interpretation. It starts with your own body as your history affects it. Taking time to feel fully and without needless defense goes beyond your evaluative mind.
6. Don’t Cling to “Good” Feelings. In our culture, we are often told to be happy, to feel confident, and to have pride. But for emotions to do their work, these cannot be fixed in place. They must come and go—like a flowing river over ever-changing features of our current situation. A person who is clinging to “happiness” is not really happy. The very act of clinging says, This cannot go away or else! which in itself causes unhappiness (very much as with the emotion avoider who has a mindset that says, This cannot show up or else!). In the world of emotion, if you’re not willing to lose it, you’ve lost it.
It’s common to think that mental health concerns only the one out of five with a diagnosed disorder. Nonsense. Mental and behavioral health involves developing psychological strength and flexibility. This means being in touch with the ebb and flow of your internal experience—your thoughts, emotions, memories, urges, and sensations—yet holding all of them lightly enough that you can still direct your energy and actions toward your goals, values, and aspirations. That combination of strength and flexibility applies to five out of five of us, 24/7.
Challenges such as anxiety ask us to develop the psychological skills needed to be who we really are, taking on board the difficult parts of our own history and carrying these forward into a life worth living. It begins now and will never end. Your own experience will guide you, but modern behavioral science now knows enough to facilitate that journey of discovery.