Acceptance, contrary to what’s often assumed, is not a passive response to challenging situations. Instead, it’s presents a very active and mindful approach to facing and navigating the Last 8% moments in life. Acceptance is an important part of our ETA strategy, but what exactly does that mean and how does it help us overcome anxiety?
When we are facing a difficult, Last 8% moment, we often feel a heavy dose anxiety. Whilst fear is a response to a concrete threat we are facing in that moment, anxiety is a response to a prediction our brain makes about a situation , which then turns into a neurological loop called the “loop of anxiety”.
The Loop of Anxiety
In the “loop of anxiety” we first receive information about a future event, which is full of ambiguous input that our brain processes quickly and often inaccurately. We immediately feel body sensations. Our brain then compares these physical sensations to our experience template, that is, all that we have experienced in the past, and labels it with an emotion such as “unpleasant” or “not calm”, and with this label it predicts how the situation will affect our body. At the same time, it feeds our cognitive brain and sets off what we call “the voice in our head” (VOH), which are the thoughts and the commentary we hear in our head, which then goes back to processing this information, resulting in a loop.
The problem is that our body and brain react in an automated way to what we are experiencing – causing us to either avoid a difficult situation or conversation when we feel aversion towards it, or we get wound up, ruminating and worrying about it – we get hooked, overreact and make a mess of it. Most often we are not even aware that we are reacting in this habitual way, which is also called our predictable default behavior.
If we look closely at the result of these habitual attempts, we will see that avoiding or getting hooked/making a mess only creates challenges. We just continue the loop of anxiety, giving it power over us and fail to think or act decisively.
Acceptance as part of our ETA strategy
Our ETA strategy, which we explain in depth in the Last 8% Morning podcast and other articles in our blog, follows the concepts of Exploration - Tenderness - Acceptance. The goal of acceptance is to no longer define unpleasant emotional experiences as a problem or an indication that we are flawed. Instead of fighting them or feeling guilty for them, we embrace these physical sensations, emotions and the VOH. What makes acceptance a powerful antidote to anxiety is the fact that when we face challenges head on by welcoming these emotions and sensations or even befriending them instead of avoiding them, they lose the power they hold over us. Yes, they may be unpleasant but whilst that experience may be inevitable, the suffering resulting from them is not – suffering is always optional.
This isn’t just a phrase, research in multiple fields has shown evidence for this theory: for example studies in people with chronic pain have found a direct correlation between negative habitual thinking and the level of suffering they experience.
Acceptance simply means to allow for unpleasant experiences to exist, without trying to deny or change them. The more we actively choose acceptance, the more we build new neuro pathways, until it eventually become habitual. It’s not a passive way of dealing with situations in any shape or form, instead it requires great energy and will power to experience and be with inevitable unpleasant or “non calm” experiences without reacting to them.