Anxiety as an Opportunity to Practice: Reading Claire Weekes

I was reading Claire Weekes last night and stumbled upon another home run chapter of hers. Two important ideas here:

  • Symptoms (anxiety, depression, etc.) are best approached as opportunities to practice acceptance
  • We find peace by stepping into our suffering, not trying to get away from it

Symptoms as Opportunities to Practice

Here, Claire Weekes is writing about her work with a woman struggling with panic attacks:

“when the symptoms were at their fiercest… that was the moment for her to practice that acceptance that would help her find lasting peace.

Most of us are good at acceptance when we like how we’re feeling. We can loosen our bodies to feelings of calm and happiness. We can sink into the feelings and sensations, let them wash over us. That ‘sinking into’ is the very act of acceptance that Claire Weekes is talking about.

This is good news: every one of us knows how to accept some experiences.

Imagine getting home from a long day out and about. You’re exhausted (the good kind), you kick off your shoes, and down you drop into your favorite chair. What do you do next? You release. You let go of your tension and sink into the chair. You stop holding yourself and trust the chair to hold you. At a physiological level your muscle tone decreases. Your nervous system down-shifts. You clock off for the day and let the chair take over.

Now, imagine doing this same thing but in the face of anxious symptoms (or depressive symptoms, or grief, or any unwanted experience).

Seem impossible?

It’s not, even though it seems like it is. Even though everything in you is telling you that you have to fight your anxiety, or have a beer, or watch TV until you’re relaxed again.

Accepting anxiety is difficult, but a lot of the difficulty has to do with our beliefs about what we can and can’t do, not the actual act of doing it. It’s difficult in the way that asking someone out on a date is difficult: you get in the way of yourself with fears about what will happen, how badly it could go, what a fool of yourself you might make. But once you find the courage to do it (“Okay. One. Two. Three!“), you find that it’s a lot simpler than you imagined.

This is the leap of faith in anxiety recovery: turning openly to the heart of fear. Or, in other words, stepping into the eye of storm.

Finding the Eye of the Storm

When Claire Weekes explained acceptance to the woman mentioned at the start of the article, she responded, “You mean I have to find the eye of the hurricane?” As Claire later wrote, “Sailors say that at the center of the hurricane there is a place of peace which they call the ‘eye’. The storm swirls around but cannot reach it. To find it the ship must first go through the storm.”

I think this is an incredibly useful metaphor, the kind that some people would do well to put on post-it notes and look at on a daily basis. It so clearly communicates what we’re doing in the journey of recovering from anxiety. It shows us what to do instead of telling it in words.

The image also inspires some early faith that there is a place of peace amidst all the anxiety. The irony is that it’s at the center of it – it’s at the center of all those sensations and reactions that you find intolerable. This is hugely important because the problem-solving mind tells us that we need to get away from the symptoms in order to feel better. (Then we start doing avoidance behaviors that end up making the anxiety stronger.) What we really need, though, is a reminder to step in. Your symptom isn’t a bear on the path; your symptom is the path. When you are ready, set this up in your mind: Symptom = Step in to accept.

Let Your Symptoms be a Cue to Accept

So, the invitation (the action item!) here is to let your symptoms be a cue to accept. How you accept will depend on your personality and style.

  • Are you more visual? If so, try drawing your acceptance for this unwanted experience. Draw yourself accepting. Draw a home for your unwanted experience.
  • Are you more kinesthetic? Find a posture that communicates and demonstrates acceptance. Find your body’s way of being present to your experience.
  • Are you more cerebral? Repeat an affirmation that reminds you of the reason you’re trying to accept. (Ex: I want this. I will not fear my fear.)

You need to find what works for you. I don’t have the magic formula. No therapist does. We know the roadmap, but it’s up to you how this will look in your life.

The nice thing is, you don’t even need to be good at accepting for it to work. The effort to accept is often enough. You don’t need to be an acceptance perfectionist, beating yourself up for not accepting well enough. You don’t need to chase some idol of total acceptance, fantasizing that then you’d be free of your suffering. That’s still an avoidance-based mindset, looking for the way to get rid of suffering once and for all.

The genuine effort to show up to your pain or worry, presently and openly, can be enough to take the sting out of suffering. It stops suffering from multiplying in response to your resistance of it. Like a Chinese finger trap, it’s when you push in that it starts to loosen.

How to Accept

Remember the example of sinking into your chair after a long day? Find an example in your life where you let go, sink in, and stop fighting. That’s the move you’re looking for.

Once you’ve isolated that move, the next step is to practice connecting it to experiences of anxiety (or other unwanted experience).

This takes practice. You’re bringing together two parts of yourself that have been far apart for a long time. It’s okay if it’s awkward or difficult. No one learns to play piano overnight, and no one learns acceptance of anxiety overnight either. But it can be learned. You learn through practice, and if you let your symptoms guide you (“Oh, I’m anxious. Time to practice accepting again!”), you’ll gather lots of practice very quickly.

“Acceptance means letting the body loosen as much as possible and then going toward, not withdrawing from, the feared symptoms, the feared experiences. It means ‘letting go’, ‘going with’, bending like the willow before the wind – rolling with the punches!”

Claire Weekes

Time is a Salve that Heals

Don’t expect results overnight. In fact, don’t expect results in any one moment. If you find yourself expecting an immediate result (“Has it gone away? Is acceptance working?”), it’s a good signal that you’re definitely not accepting. You’re back in the avoidance mindset which sees anxiety as a problem to be dealt with, not an experience to be had.

If there were a useful formula, it would be something like this: Acceptance + Time = Recovery

Give acceptance the time it needs to work. Another way of saying this is, Give your body and mind the time it needs to come back to baseline, without your creating more anxiety through avoidance and resistance.

“I repeat, it takes time for a body to establish acceptance and for this to bring peace, just as it takes time for fear to be established as continuous tension and anxiety. This is why letting time pass… is so important in treatment.”

Claire Weekes

Leave a Comment