When most people hear the term “acceptance,” they associate it with a passive state of contentment. As therapists, we know that patients can proactively harness acceptance to cope not only with everyday distress, but also unprecedented challenges, including the myriad emotional, physical, and financial hardships associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

When we use the term “acceptance” in this manner, we typically mean “radical acceptance,” a skill that originated in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. Think of radical acceptance as emotional energy conservation with the added benefit of acquiring new, efficient, renewable resources. Radical acceptance helps you conserve energy that you would have spent fighting with yourself or the world over what is, and gain clarity about what you actually need and how to get it.

Misunderstanding Acceptance

A common misconception about radical acceptance is that acceptance requires approval. It does not. Nor does radical acceptance require accepting defeat. Instead, it simply requires you to accept reality. I often remind patients that you don’t have to like a situation or a feeling to accept it.

Protesting Reality

While protest thoughts such as “This cannot be happening!” may initially feel productive, because such thoughts make us feel as though we are in the throes of fighting an enemy, no enemy can be defeated with denial. Shaking your fists at the sky doesn’t change a situation, nor does it make you feel any better. On the contrary, repetitive protest thoughts distract you from gaining greater self-awareness, thinking of ways to solve problems and taking action.

If we are consumed and distracted by the fight over what is, we cannot grab hold of the things that we do have control over: namely, our responses to challenging circumstances. Disbelief, denial, and bargaining are all normative automatic reactions to discomfort, fear, and trauma. We engage in such thinking both in response to the internal world of our own feelings, as well as exigent external events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. An initial reaction to the crisis may therefore sound like, “This disease cannot be as contagious or lethal as they’re saying it is.” Or “This has got to end before I have to cancel my plans.” On an internal level, a protest response sounds something like, “I will not feel sad about this!” (when you are in fact feeling sad). But the more time we spend trying to fight reality, the more defeated, overwhelmed, and hopeless we feel, because denial simply cannot change reality.

Achieving Acceptance

When engaged in combat with an external threat like COVID-19, acceptance not only can dramatically reduce distress, it can literally make us safer. For example, constantly fighting against reality prevents us from practicing behaviors that reduce the risk of infection, such as social distancing. Once we accept that the crisis is happening, we are much more likely to engage in such potentially life-saving behaviors.

Acceptance is also powerful because it leads us to discover what we can control. If we let go of trying to control the world or our automatic emotional responses, we can reach more comforts and supports through adaptive thoughts.

Imagine you’re living in a New York City apartment with a roommate you despise. Having just resolved to move out and put new plans in place, the COVID-19 crisis has erupted, bringing your plans to an abrupt halt. In that scenario, you might feel despair or helplessness. You might do nothing but ruminate on your predicament.

Now imagine you accept the limitations imposed by the situation and say, “Okay, I cannot move out right now because I don’t have control over getting a new apartment right now. I hate this situation, but what could I still do given this reality? What would my second-best option be? Would self-quarantining and then rooming with a friend be an option? Could I stay right here but be more direct with my roommate about needing more privacy and, say, wear my headphones for an unholy amount of time to achieve some semblance of distance?” Maybe so.

In these times, it is important to stop and remind ourselves of the power of our own resilience and flexibility. We have all been challenged before, and we can gain perspective and strength from those experiences by recalling how we coped, and then applying that knowledge to the present moment.

Ultimately, when we stop fighting with ourselves and the world over what is, we can exhale for a moment, collect our thoughts, and do the next right thing. Maybe it’s reading a novel, maybe it’s donating supplies to a local hospital or sharing our deepest fears with someone we trust, or maybe it’s spraying every single solitary surface in our homes with Lysol. That will all depend on what the moment requires. If we actively admit what we are struggling with, we will find the actions that can take us forward.

Below is a series of questions you can ask yourself to advance your self-awareness. If you feel you might benefit from speaking with a professional, consider reaching out to the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) HelpLine at 1-800-950-6264 or contact a licensed mental health professional offering telehealth counseling.

  1. Without any judgment ask yourself what you are feeling. What thoughts contribute to feeling this way?
  2. Do you have a lot of fears about feeling that way? (Example: Do you feel that having this feeling makes you weak or that it will never stop? What evidence do you have to indicate a feeling determines a person’s moral character? What evidence do you have that a feeling will not pass if it’s given the chance?)
  3. Can you talk about these fears or seek help in tackling them?
  4. Are any of your current behaviors making this feeling more difficult to bear? (Examples can include overexposure to news updates and isolation from friends.)
  5. What behaviors could you try to engage in to help alleviate this distress? (Examples may include keeping a gratitude journal, limiting news exposure, engaging in healthy distraction techniques, donating to charities and local hospitals, contacting close confidants, or calling a support hotline.)
  6. Do any of your current interpersonal relationships make this feeling worse? What boundaries can you put in place to reduce that?
  7. Why shouldn’t you grieve the losses that come with this unprecedented crisis? Have you even allowed yourself to grieve this situation as a loss of predictable normalcy, if nothing else, before trying to extinguish your feelings?