Friday, January 28, 2022

Becoming More Psychologically-Flexible Through Acceptance


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In my last few columns I’ve been discussing the components of psychological flexibility. Research shows that being more psychologically flexible makes you more stress resistant. People who are more psychologically flexible cope better because they are more open to viewing stressors differently and trying different techniques to manage their stress.

In this post I want to focus on Acceptance, the third component of psychological flexibility.

In my last column we discussed mindfulness. If you recall, mindfulness training increases your awareness of both internal (thoughts, feelings etc.) and external (behavior, environment) factors. Once you become more aware of what is going on in your mind and your environment the next step is learning to accept this reality, especially if it is troubling and a source of your stress.

Acceptance has four components:

1. Accepting reality for what it is.

2. Accepting what you can and cannot control.

3. Accepting that trying to avoid, control or eliminate troubling thoughts and painful emotions actually makes them worse.

4. Accepting that the best way to manage troubling thoughts and painful emotions is to accept them, and co-exist with them as you shift your focus off of them and onto taking action that is consistent with your values and goals.

Let me spend a few moments discussing these four components.

1. Accepting Reality For What It Is.

Accepting reality for what it is implies two things, (1) you accept whatever thoughts and unpleasant feelings you are experiencing at the moment, and (2) you accept that experiencing painful and troubling thoughts and feelings is part of being human.

Accepting something and being willing to move forward while coexisting with it doesn’t mean you necessarily want it. It just means that you admit that it exists and you don’t deny it. You accept the existence of your pain and suffering as a starting point for dealing with it.

2. Accepting What You Can and Cannot Control.

Research shows that you cannot control the things that go on in your mind; your thoughts, feelings, self-talk, and mental images. These internal factors come and go like the wind and are beyond your conscious control. For example, if I told you to “feel happy” or “be sad” you could not simply close your eyes and conjure up these feelings.

While you cannot control your thoughts or feelings, you can control your behavior. You can choose how you behave in relation to your thoughts and feelings. There is a relationship between behavior and thoughts and feelings.

For instance, you can trigger happy feelings by doing something that you know makes you feel joy. For example, I know from past experience that going for a sunrise run along the beach on Marco Island triggers feelings of joy and euphoria. If I want to experience those emotions I could simply go for a sunrise run along the beach and chances are I could trigger those feelings. You also have some degree of control over your micro-environment (home, work space, car etc.). You can make modifications to any of these to enhance your mental well-being.

3. Accepting That Trying to Avoid, Control or Eliminate Troubling Thoughts and Painful Emotions Actually Makes Them Worse.

The most important aspect of acceptance is the fact that when you try to avoid, control, or eliminate troubling thoughts and painful emotions you actually make them worse. This comes from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)-based psychological research that studies the relationships among language, emotions, and behavior.

4. Accepting That the Best Way to Manage Troubling Thoughts and Painful Emotions is to Accept Them, and Co-Exist With Them as You Shift Your Focus Off of Them and Onto Taking Values-Congruent Action.

Instead of reaching for a drink, a joint or some Xanax, the best way to deal with your troubling thoughts and painful emotions it to take them with you. You don’t need to control, avoid or eliminate your pain and suffering before taking values-based action.

A key component of coexisting with your troubling thoughts and painful emotions while taking valued action is learning how to shift your focus off of them and onto behavior that is consistent with your values.

This involves being more willing to engage in helpful behavior and create more helpful environments. ACT studies found that control and willingness are inversely related; the more you try to control, avoid or eliminate troubling thoughts and painful emotions, the less willing you are to take action.

Conversely, the more willing you are to accept troubling thoughts and painful feelings, the less you need to control them in order to act. Giving up control and being willing to take values-related action, while coexisting with your pain and suffering, is a key step in learning how to conquer your stress.

The best way to shift your attention away from yourself (your thoughts and feelings) is to engage in constructive action that involves the large muscle groups working at a moderate to fast pace. Any kind of work or play that involves this kind of activity will eventually take your mind off of your thoughts, feelings and problems.

One of my personal favorites for shifting my attention is kayaking. If I am struggling with something stressful I take my kayak out to Goodland, and paddle off into the bay seeking the backwaters. I paddle hard and focus my attention on synching the cadence of my strokes to my breathing. I also like to focus my attention on the sights and sounds of the backwaters. Whenever my thoughts drift back to my problems I shift my focus back onto my kayaking and kick up the pace. After 20-30 minutes I almost always have a clear head and calmer focus.

Remember, when you try this, be sure to focus your attention on the physical work you are engaging in, not your troubling thoughts and painful emotions. When your attention drifts back to your problems and the negative thoughts and painful feelings that accompany them, you need to recognize and accept and then shift your focus back to your behavior.

This is called being fully involved in the present moment and where your mindfulness training kicks in. This is why I always talk about mindfulness before discussing acceptance.

Learning to accept and co-exist with your troubling thoughts and painful emotions while taking values-congruent action is not easy. It takes practice and repetition but in the long run is well worth the effort as it is a key to increasing psychological flexibility.

Dr. Rich Blonna is an expert in understanding how the mind and body work together in creating and managing stress. He is the author of several stress self-help books and courses and the popular college textbook, Coping With Stress in a Changing World 5th Ed; McGraw-Hill Publishing. He is a retired Professor Emeritus from William Paterson University in New Jersey. For over 25 years he has devoted himself to helping people just like you stress less and live more.

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