“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” – Reinhold Niebuhr
The capacity to recognize and surrender control in the context of unavoidable stress is a fundamental tool in managing stress under these circumstances. Fighting against the unavoidable uses up emotional energy and generates destructive emotional tension that ultimately is very stressful and unproductive. It takes insight, skill and maturity to surrender to and accept what cannot be avoided, altered or adapted to. This article focuses on ways of coping with stress and explores how you can manage your reaction to stress through directing your expectations and attitude to a place of acceptance.
The way we perceive a stressful situation is core to the impact it has on us with the way you think about a situation, having a profound effect on your emotional and physical well-being. In situations that cannot be controlled, thoughts or efforts directed toward attempting to control the situation only serve to amplify the impact of a tension-filled situation. By choosing a lens of acceptance, the impact of the stressful event is not further compounded by self-defeating thoughts that place us in a self-defeating and self-deprecating emotional gridlock. Situations like losing a loved one, having a special needs child or a change in management structure within your company cannot be avoided, but choosing to accept such circumstances can transform a negative experience into one that becomes an enormous opportunity for growth.
Let’s explore some specific strategies based on acceptance as the strategy for dealing with a stressful situation:
Stop Trying to Control the Uncontrollable
Many situations or aspects of situations are beyond our control. This extends to actual circumstances of a stressful situation (e.g. a retrenchment) as well as the behavior of other people (e.g. an aggressive driver cutting in front of you). The process of building awareness in any situation about what is in your control and what is beyond your control is extremely helpful in focusing your energy constructively. The next step in this process is to make a conscious choice not to stress out over things you cannot control, given how this kind of response to stress only serves to compound the effects of stress. Rather than stressing out over uncontrollable aspects of the situation, choose to focus your energy on what you can control, such as the way you choose to react to the circumstances.
Find Spaces to Share Your Feelings
The challenge of using strategies focused on acceptances is primarily at the emotional level – the expression and processing of feelings such as helplessness and anger that acceptance requires. Through talking to a close friend or seeking out therapy, you can provide yourself with the space to process and come to terms with challenging situations. While you may not be able to change the circumstances, these kinds of relationships allow for the expression and processing of feelings, and can help you to generate the insight and self-awareness that you require to cope with the situation.
By accepting the fact that mistakes happen and that we live in an imperfect world, you can greatly reduce your experience of stress. Don’t revisit past experiences or run by a whole lot of “what if” scenarios. By freeing yourself from revisiting alternative possibilities and letting go of past hurts and resentments, you can release a lot of associated stress.
While in some ways acceptance is the most passive of approaches to managing stress, it takes the most emotional maturity and wisdom. Avoiding or altering a stressful situation, or managing your reaction by adapting to challenging circumstances, somehow pale in the face of the sober realization that you have nothing else to do in this situation but accept. Yet in some cases, the most effective way of coping with stress is acceptance of the circumstances as they are. While acceptance may be difficult, it has less compounding effects and in the long run is easier than rallying against the unchangeable. By focusing on embracing a place of acceptance, on the work of changing yourself, an otherwise stressful event can potentially be transformed into a growth inducing, life-changing experience.
Dr. Stacey Leibowitz-Levy is a highly-experienced psychologist with a Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology and a PhD in the area of stress and its relation to goals and emotion. In addition to her private therapy practice, she currently runs E-counseling.com, a mental health resource with self-help guides on stress, anxiety, depression, and many other areas. During her spare time, Stacey enjoys spending time with her husband and children, being outdoors and doing yoga.