So radical acceptance sounds like something I would say as a kid. ‘Totally Radical, man’. And when I read about the concept it actually is something I haven’t been shown how to do by a psychologist but rather something I have taught myself to do over the years with chronic pain. I like to invent my own coping skills and then apparently find out they already exist with a fancy-schmancy name. Pretty radical, eh?
Pain and suffering
The article starts with the distinction between pain and suffering. And I think we can all acknowledge there is a difference between the sensation of pain, that we can’t do much about, and suffering which is the reactions we have to the pain, and in that area we do have a least some wiggle room of control.
Radical acceptance means recognizing your emotional or physical distress — whether around minor issues, like traffic, or more significant challenges, such as navigating a chronic illness — and wholeheartedly practicing acceptance.
Though it sounds counterintuitive, accepting negative circumstances can help you feel better. “Life regularly and inevitably involves emotional stress, anger, fears around health, shame around failed relationships,” Dr. Brach told me in an interview, “but anything short of fully accepting our human experience will keep us caught in those emotions.”The New York Times
For example “It’s the difference between accepting you’re anxious and avoiding, and being willing to feel anxious while approaching meaningful opportunities.”
And it reminded me of how I cope with chronic pain and especially when the pain is seriously severe. I tell myself my emotional reaction to pain is a perfectly normal human response. And allow myself to accept and acknowledge that emotion. To understand where it is coming from and feel it.
But to not immerse it in so much that I begin to ruminate on it and start down a path of negative thoughts that I Attach to that Emotion. I came to the realization when I was in the depths of my depression that I would feel severe pain and just fall down a slippery slope of despair because of all the thoughts I would assign to that emotion and the beliefs that I would then create about my pain. Like ‘This pain is endless. I’m going to suffer forever. My life is just this endless torment and there is no point to existing like this if I have to endure this constant pain every moment of my existence.’ And it would spiral down and down and down into this horrific desperate, raw, despair.
Instead of just accepting that that emotional response to such an intense pain experience was entirely normal. That I could feel that without attaching any additional meaning to it. And know that the pain experience wouldn’t continue at that level of intensity forever and my emotion would also be a passing state of being.
It is not just accepting that this all sucks
Many of my clients initially confuse accepting with resigning themselves to feeling bad, but that couldn’t be further from what this practice intends. Psychologically, acceptance is an active stance that actually promotes change by helping us manage our emotions so we can solve problems.New York Times
I find if I accept my emotional experience as a normal human response to my pain or chronic illness it enables me to not fixate on negative thoughts but rather focus on any coping strategies that may help me with the pain. Or with extreme pain, at the very least, help me get through it without tumbling into a very severe depressive state (and sometimes confronting the thoughts that do automatically crop up, which I definitely have to do sometimes) because I allow myself to be sad and I have self-compassion for that state because I am in so much pain, and I am unable to function, but permit myself to rest without any guilt and get through that experience.
I really never thought about how I do this or what I do but the article goes into the process of it.
- R- Recognize and pause to notice
- A- Allow or accept your current experience
- I- Investigate what is happening in your mind and body
- N- Nurture with self-compassion
As a bonus, studies have also shown that therapies incorporating acceptance reduce suicidality, substance use, anxiety, chronic pain, and improve relationships and subjective well-being.New York Times
I don’t know if it reduces chronic pain per se. Or at least what I do, personally, which obviously may differ from learning radical acceptance from a professional. As in the sensation in the body I am experiencing. It just helps with the suffering of it and how I react to it so that I can better cope with daily chronic pain. So it certainly helps with my overall well-being and state of mind.
Things to be mindful of
- Scan your mind for judgmental thoughts- take note of negative thoughts. And this I definitely did pick up from my psychologist with CBT and helped me immensely. And the more you do it the better you get at it.
- Honour your emotions- Allow yourself to experience what you are feeling. This I found was a turning point for me. I am sort of an emotional idiot, I have to say. I focus on my rational thinking and not much on my emotional existence. So often I tend to just think about my emotions rather than feel them, which unfortunately with chronic pain and negative experiences, leads to overthinking and a crapton of negative self-talk. It is a product of my personality type. And I really had to decide to just ‘let the emotion flow through me’ and not analyze it or feel compelled to ruminate on it. It took a bit of time before I really began to be effective at this outside of when I did it for Just extreme pain.
- Release the tension in your face- “According to something known as the facial feedback hypothesis, the faces we make impact our emotions, which is why I teach my clients who yearn to be more accepting how to go from a scowl to “half smiling.”” When I read this it made me laugh a bit because I picked this trick up years ago when I read research that said your brain cannot tell a fake smile from a real one. And one way to alter your mood, is to sort of change your expression, and to soften it or sort of smile a little. And it really helped me get though bad days at work.
- Act willingly- “True acceptance also extends to your behavior. Dr. Linehan teaches that in any moment you can either choose willfulness — by refusing to tolerate something or needing to be in control — or opt for willingness — by behaving as if you’re saying yes to participating in reality. Since life is full of activities we dread (doing yet another Zoom meeting), choosing to do so with pep can feel nicer than dragging your feet.” As an introvert this is literally how I do anything out of my comfort zone but, man, it is a hard one. Seriously. Hard.
- Work on U-turns- “Finally, know that defaulting to fight or flight reactions is normal. It’s unrealistic to think that you’ll decide to radically accept and immediately find enduring bliss. But that’s OK — when you find yourself thinking judgmentally, tensing up or holding back from ultimately helpful actions, you can notice it and try “turning the mind” back to accepting, as Dr. Linehan teaches, without blaming yourself for the detour. Acceptance, I tell my clients, is not merely a one-time choice; you have endless opportunities. At any moment, you can choose to find more freedom.” I think with chronic illness we know this. Coping is a process. Bad days, weeks, happen. And we have to forgive ourselves for that, always. I have some serious slumps in mental health and I just do all the things I can to help myself through it knowing it just happens sometimes.
Chronic pain is brutal and no one can cope with it perfectly all the time. Or perfectly, period. It is just a process. Seriously we need to have some self-compassion for ourselves and what we endure on a daily basis. This is just one way that has helped me cope over time. I just thought of it as a sort of a change in my mindset and perspective. I suppose it is that actually.
But I really do not think there is really ever one road to acceptance. And I also do not think it is a permanent state of existence, not when chronic illness is so volatile and unpredictable.
The thing is I am aware that, with me, being on disability is what allowed me the capacity to do this change in my acceptance. Because I could adapt better and use different coping strategies without having to constantly push through the pain to get through the day compounding my stress and exceeding my limits. And that obviously makes a huge difference. Existing in survival mode does not really enable a person to find acceptance of any sort. So that is a rather huge caveat to radical acceptance, for me. I am keenly aware that if I were to return to full-time work I would fall back into a state of trying to keep my head above water all the time, knowing full well I was drowning and literally no medical professional really cares much about that fact.
So at least that is a major fear of mine. But if my vertigo spontaneously disappeared and I had any actual pain management I would actively seek some appropriate part-time work that wasn’t a massive stress magnet. Because working has a lot of benefits I value.