Accepting the Reality of COVID-19
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.
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.
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.
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.