Radical Acceptance: How to Cope in Uncertain Times
This word captures the magnitude of the impact of the COVID19 health crisis has had on every area of our lives. The impact is both intensely personal and at the same time being experienced by our entire global human community.
For many of us, worries about the immediate and long-term future have reached a tipping point, with fear of the unknown threatening to overwhelm our ability to manage it. For those who have previously struggled with anxiety and depression, the sense of overwhelm is compounded.
Unprecedented: Fear, Anxiety, and Uncertainty.
Having unlimited amounts of time socially isolated, without our usual routines has been unsettling. Economic uncertainty is a threat to our livelihood. Our instinctive response to a threat is to become hyper-vigilant; a stress-based state of readiness. Many of us have taken heed of the safety precautions necessary to stay safe while out in the world, such as wearing face masks, social distancing, and washing our hands.
However, this constant physiological state of stress is counterproductive to maintaining a strong immune system. Studies have shown that stress impacts our immune system negatively, due to the release of stress hormones which take a toll on our bodies.
In order to truly maintain our health, we are encouraged to look within; to learn more about how to create wellness in our inner world—our true selves.
As uncomfortable and disrupting as it is, this crisis has presented us with an unprecedented opportunity to slow down, and to connect with our selves in a way that may not have been possible while we were engaged in our busy daily lives. We have an opportunity to become mindful – to consider where we are, how we got here—and if desired— make adjustments or start over.
Research over the past several decades validates both the short and long term benefits of mindfulness in shoring up our immune system. As you learn to regulate your emotions and develop mindfulness, you will also be providing a boost to your immune system.
Radical Acceptance and Mindfulness are two practices that can be cultivated to reduce stress to our immune systems and ground our selves in a more beneficial psychological mindset—offering an unparalleled opportunity for development of personal stability.
Simply understood, radical acceptance means we acknowledge that things are “as they are.” This is a first step, not the end game. It is simply an acknowledgment of the reality of what has happened or what is currently happening, both outside and inside of us.
Let me emphasize: Radical acceptance is not the same as “agreeing with” or passively allowing unacceptable situations or behaviors from others. It simply means you fully face reality “as it is” so you can see clearly without distortions and take appropriate action as necessary.
Once we accept reality as it is, we can then consider if and how we’d like to change it. Rather than judging what is happening, and spending energy on objecting and telling stories about it; we acknowledge “OK, this is happening.” Then we ask, “Now, how do I want to handle it?”
How does this help us? Objecting to reality actually intensifies our emotional reaction and clouds our ability to think clearly and make the best decisions. Caveat: Developing Radical Acceptance is not necessarily easy. Change rarely is. Adapting our patterns of behavior requires focused attention and effort, but it is within our control and the benefits are immediately realized.
Consider the following scenario, which demonstrates two approaches to a circumstance:
Let’s imagine a typical situation befalls two women; I’ll call them Maggie and Sarah. They get into a traffic accident while driving on the highway.
After the initial shock, Maggie becomes angry because she believes the accident was caused by Sarah’s error. This causes her to get out of her car and confront Sarah, putting herself in danger. She then calls her husband and spends time and energy retelling what happened and defending herself – forgetting that she needs to call the insurance company to report the accident.
Maggie is stuck in a mental loop. Maggie is adding suffering to what is an unfortunate circumstance. She also misses the opportunity to feel gratitude for the fact that she was not harmed. She is making a bad situation worse by objecting to the reality of the situation.
However, Sarah is more mindful. Rather than objecting to reality, Sarah moves more quickly from shock to accepting what is — which is that she has been in an accident. She doesn’t focus on whose fault it was; she knows insurance will handle that. Instead, she focuses on the here and now, and is grateful that both she and the other driver appear to be unharmed. Because she is less emotional, Sarah can see things from a wider perspective. She was shaken from the accident but remains in control of her emotions, she is not rejecting or judging reality. When Maggie approaches her, she remains in her car and keeps her cool. She avoids a potentially heated exchange. She has the where-with-all to call her insurance company and the police from the safety of her car.
This example illustrates in a simple way how radical acceptance allows us to face reality as it is, and make the best decisions we can. Neither woman was able to change the reality of the situation. They were both in a car accident. However, the event was much more draining for Maggie, and impacted her well being more negatively. This is an example of how radical acceptance can help us to reduce our suffering.
Radical acceptance is well expressed in this well-known excerpt from The Serenity Prayer (Reinhold Niebuhr, 1892-1971)
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
Applying Radical Acceptance to the Moment
If there is one thing this global pandemic has made abundantly clear, it is that no matter how well we plan (and yes we should plan) there are many things out of our immediate control. In light of this fact, we can use radical acceptance to discern what it is we do have control over within our circumstances, and how to make best use of our energy toward the well being of others and our selves.
Here are some practical tips for how to apply radical acceptance to the moment:
Ground yourself in the present moment. – Often, much of our anxiety is based on fear of the future. When anxiety threatens to overwhelm you, try focusing your attention on what is coming through your 5 senses: What do you see, what do you hear, what are you feeling in your body, do you have a taste in your mouth, can you smell anything. Breathe into these sensations. Doing this for one or two minutes will significantly reduce your anxiety and allow you to solve problems with more clarity.
Move your body – Check in with how your body feels; do you feel tightness in your chest? Is your breathing rapid, or shallow? Do you feel tension in your neck? Once you have determined that these bodily sensations are not related to sickness, try stretching, going for a walk nearby, or put on some music and dance around the living room, joy in movement is a great stress reliever!
Limit media exposure of the news – While it is important to stay aware of the most recent updates, try to limit your intake to that which is actionable, and will actually make a difference to your day-to-day functioning. Once you have the information you need, turn off the news, and seek other forms of relaxation and entertainment. Perhaps finally binge-watching that TV show you have never had time for, or maybe find a good comedy special. Laughter is the best medicine!
Develop mindfulness – Mindfulness means paying attention to what is happening inside of you and outside of you, in the present moment, without judgment. Mindfulness is not necessarily quieting your mind, although that may happen as you cultivate this practice. Rather, mindfulness lets us widen our view of any given moment, so that we see ourselves within what is happening. This small shift in perception can help us avoid getting absorbed in thought and anxiety. It’s like putting a wedge between you and your thoughts and emotions, which allows you to realize that you are NOT your thoughts or emotions. With practice, you come to see that your awareness is constant, it is the thoughts and emotions that come and go. This space is where the magic happens and where freedom from the grip of anxiety may be possible.
The ground we gain by tending to our internal experience will serve us both now and all the days of our lives. In a life full of uncertainty and the inevitability of change, the ability to ground and regulate ourselves in our Self is an opportunity to become familiar with a truly constant and stable place.
Developing these mindfulness practices requires practice. Working with a life coach or individual therapist can help facilitate the development of these skills. The best part is, when we are better able to cope our selves, we help others we are in contact with to become more grounded as well.
Roseann Pascale, M.S., LMFT
Roseann Pascale, M.A., LMFT is an empathetic and intuitive couples counselor, therapist and coach. Through authentic connection and a down to earth demeanor, Roseann can guide you in developing clarity and cultivating well-being. Using the practices of mindfulness and values-driven action, she helps individuals and couples overcome their challenges and create fulfillment in all aspects of life.
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