Acceptance of emotions, the ACT way


In the previous two posts in this ACT series, I have discussed Diffusion and Engagement. In this post, the final one of the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy series (for now), I will be discussing the core process Acceptance, also known as Expansion.

I find the process of acceptance that I’m going to share with you really fascinating. Usually when we feel a sensation such as anxiety, we understandably want to get rid of it as quickly as possible. But often in an attempt to rid ourselves of the anxious feelings, we make it worse. It’s like it hits back at us, shouting louder so that we don’t ignore the danger that our mind perceives is around us. Acceptance does the opposite - there is no fighting the anxiety but instead, allowing it to be and accepting it. Acceptance doesn’t mean you have to put up with it forever nor that you’re not going to do anything to help yourself overcome it. Just that you accept that it’s an emotion that you’re experiencing at that moment, giving yourself (and the emotion) some space to be, as well as compassion, in an attempt to let it pass by without it consuming you.

Whilst it does feel slightly counter-intuitive, it has been used successfully in trials for a wide range of issues. I recommend that you spend some time practicing it outside of an actual anxious situation to familiarise yourself with the process, using the outline below:

  1. Think of a situation that typically find yourself anxious in.

  2. You might want to close your eyes to do this as you will find it easier to imagine the details.

  3. Imagine being in that situation and seeing it through your own eyes.

  4. Generally when we start thinking about situations that we feel anxious in, we start to feel some aspect of that anxiety. So observe any sensations in your body that occur. Focus on the sensation that is the strongest to you. Notice where in the body it is. Where does it start and end? Does it have a shape? Is it light or heavy? Moving or still? Warm or cool? Just notice what you notice about the sensation.

  5. Then breathe into and around the sensation. Slow, deep breathes are best. Imagine your breath flowing into and around the sensation in whichever way feels right for you.

  6. As you continue to breath into and around the sensation, imagine that each breath is creating extra space within your body, giving the sensation plenty of room. The sensation can never be bigger than you.

  7. Then allow the sensation to be there, in that space. With this process, you’re not trying to fight or get rid of the sensation. So if you feel the urge to do anything to fight or reduce the feeling, acknowledge it, and bring your focus back to the sensation, the breathe, the space you’ve given it. Whilst you’re not aiming to reduce the sensation, if it ends up changing or reducing by itself, that’s fine.

  8. Continue to allow the sensation to be there, observing it, until you get to the point where you have completely given up struggling with it and accept it as it is.

  9. Then imagine placing your hands where you feel that sensation in your body (or actually place them there if you’d prefer).

  10. Imagine sending wishes of loving kindness, compassion, warmth and acceptance to the sensation, to yourself. Imagine it wrapping around the sensation and yourself, allowing it to build and grow. Allow yourself to feel those feelings of love, of kindness, of compassion, of warmth, of acceptance.

Remember, your goal of using this technique is not to reduce symptoms. It’s about allowing the symptoms or sensations, such as anxiety, to come and go without letting it drag you down or hold you back from doing anything. Often symptom reduction occurs as a result of using these techniques, but it is rather a by-product as opposed to the goal.

This exercise above allows you to practice the ability of being with your feelings and giving them space. Then you will find it easier to do the same process when you are actually in those types of situations, helping you handle the situation better. I use this in hypnosis with my clients and it’s a lovely thing to do for yourself.

I hope you have enjoyed this three part series on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. The techniques of Diffusion, Engagement and Acceptance provide you with a very powerful way to help handle difficult emotions such as anxiety, fear and anger. Do let me know how you get on with them.