Last week I spoke at New Wine to a very packed Tear Fund café crowd on the principle responses to anxiety and worry. Having given talks on worry for many years now, but generally to younger crowds I was taken aback again by the sheer persistence of anxiety issues amongst older adults. I guess that within me there has always been some seed of hope that my struggles with anxiety will just fade away as I get older or that I will just, “grow out of it.” Suffice to say that the crowd at New Wine reminded me that whist there are many conditions that can be completely overcome, anxiety itself can not be eradicated! Of course I say this with caution because anxiety disorders can be beaten, but the existence of anxiety is necessary for our ongoing survival and therefore will always remain within the periphery of our minds. I often say that, “Your Limbic system is working perfectly, just not appropriately”.
Because I often speak to optimistic young people with anxiety issues it talking about acceptance rarely raises an eyebrow. In this setting I was more aware that talking about the need for acceptance of the pain of anxiety would have more impact. I often wonder if I am trying to escape my own desire to escape the pain of anxiety in my life, perhaps seeing older people coming to hear me talk about ways to improve their experiences with anxiety brought home to me again the reality is that this a long-term journey.
We all long to escape pain, indeed it is written in to the very constitution of our minds. Accepting it can seem not only passive, it seems to go against the nature of the battle. And yet acceptance is a fundamental tool in overcoming anxieties staining impact on life. Acceptance is not actually a passive act of agreement it is a mindful decision to stay with the pain of anxiety for as long as it is present. This takes courage and strength to do, perhaps far more courage than reaching for quick reassurance.
M.Scott Peck describes acceptance as the first step toward change. Accepting a level of pain from anxiety, is also about recognising that it is not just a one way street. I was chatting to a good friend and Harley St psychologist yesterday who was describing the merits of anxiety. She said, “Of course it is often our anxious disposition that goes hand in hand with strong values, responsibility, high achievement, motivation and success”. She argues that accepting that there is a negative and positive side to the issue of anxiety can really help when things are tough.
Breaking the cycle of pain and escape, which perpetuates ongoing suffering within anxiety disorders can only come through the gradual acceptance that life will always be coloured by anxiety, sometimes a little and sometimes a lot. Accepting this truth does not preclude the miraculous work of Jesus, but invites his presence into the moments when escape is compelling. “Stay with the pain,” I exhorted my New Wine friends, “Invite the presence of Jesus and accept what you feel”.