Anxiety is a tricky experience. Sometimes it’s clear why we’re having these unpleasant sensations in our stomach area, a pounding heart or sweaty palms. Maybe a family member hasn’t called in a while and we’re worried about them. There’s an exam coming up and we’re dreading it. Or we’re supposed to go to a party and mingle with people even though we don’t feel like it at all. But at other times, anxiety can hit us out of nowhere.

Without an obvious reason, we can go from feeling fine to experiencing quite intense anxiety. In this post, we’ll cover the basics of why this happens and what’s the first step you can take to reverse it.

What you need to understand first

The first thing we need to know is this: Anxiety is a built-in response and it’s here to keep us safe. For a very good reason, evolution has developed the human brain so that it can trigger stress and anxiety at any moment we feel threatened — it keeps us alive.

Unfortunately, this innate reaction can go wrong. And that’s exactly what happens when we become anxious out of the blue. It can be triggered by a thought that pops into our head, a suppressed memory or by a combination of small stressors that come together to trigger anxiety. We might not notice them at all — but our subconscious doesn’t care. It can still pick them up and set off our innate danger alert.

What not to do

What’s tempting then is to start thinking about where these feelings came from. We feel the need to analyze what happened and figure out why we feel anxious now. But instead of a brief analysis, what usually happens next is this: We start to worry if these feelings will come back. We start to think through possible triggers over and over again. And we start to closely pay attention to any body signs that could mean anxiety coming up again.

Unfortunately, all these things only make anxiety worse. Analyzing is — more often than not — a bad idea. Anxiety is a complex experience and we probably won’t be able to find their source. We rather make ourselves even more miserable if we continue to ruminate about where those feelings came from. And even if we’re lucky enough to find out where the anxiety came from, our feelings don’t go away just because we know their source.

What you should do instead

Now here’s where it gets interesting. If there was some magical trick to go from anxious to completely calm within minutes, you’d probably have heard about it by now. But this trick doesn’t exist. In the moment we’re feeling anxious without knowing why, there isn’t that much that we can do about those feelings.

That’s why a therapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) teaches us the exact opposite of trying to get rid of those feelings — accepting them. It’s a relatively new but well-researched therapy approach that shows promising results. And one of the core strategies it teaches us is how to accept anxious feelings instead of fighting them.

At first, this really seems like counterintuitive advice. If we give in to the feeling won’t it stay here forever? But accepting is not the same as giving in.

Accepting is not the same as giving in.

Giving in means stopping to try. It means giving up. It’s like saying, “There’s no sense in trying anymore, I’ll always feel like this now.” Acceptance on the other hand simply means acknowledging that the feeling is there right now and we cannot make it go away by pure force of will. Accepting means understanding that we can’t force those feelings away. It’s like saying, “These feelings are here right now. I accept that they are here.” And this kind of acceptance is the first step to take back control over it.

Accepting means understanding that we can’t force those feelings away.

We still won’t be able to control the feelings themselves. But because we stop trying to control our feelings we get back control over our life. Instead of fighting against anxiety or running away from it, we’re then able to respond to it more freely. And that’s why — paradoxically — accepting those feelings is the foundation for effective change.

At the end, let’s leave with one caveat. Of course, this is much easier said than done. Real acceptance needs practice. But it can be learned.