The holidays can be a very stressful time of year. Increased commitments, holiday parties, shopping for gifts, and traveling to visit relatives can all grate on our nerves as we feel overextended and are often forced to deal with overcrowded stores and airports. Finding ways to decrease our stress levels can be beneficial not only for successfully navigating the holiday season, but for helping us throughout the year.
We are often called upon to deal with situations that are out of our control. Around the holidays, these types of stressful situations can be magnified or multiplied, as we tend to have so much on our plates. One method we can use to decrease our stress levels and/or suffering is known as radical acceptance.
Radical acceptance is a concept used in dialectical behavior therapy (Linehan, 1993). It involves learning to accept reality as it is in the present moment. This does not mean we agree with or are happy about what is happening, but through acceptance, we avoid the suffering we would otherwise be subjected to.
A major part of our suffering is due to the negative thoughts we have about ourselves, as well as the situations we encounter in our lives. We may beat ourselves up for behaving in a particular way or believe we should not have to put up with frustrating events. We want to feel that we are able to influence what happens in our lives and we get upset when things don’t go our way or are out of our control. We become angry at the unfairness of the cards that life has dealt us, rather than accepting the reality of what is.
A few examples of situations that might trigger suffering or frustration include:
- Getting stuck in a traffic jam.
- Having to wait in a long line at the grocery or department store.
- A flight being delayed or canceled.
- Finding out your partner had an affair.
- Being passed up for a promotion you worked hard for.
- The death of a loved one.
How Radical Acceptance Works
Obviously, some of the stressful situations we encounter are just minor annoyances, whereas others are more difficult to come to terms with. The process of radical acceptance, however, is the same for any situation. It consists of becoming aware of our denial and/or negative thinking and allowing our thoughts to pass through us without becoming caught up in them or judging them. A good practice would be to take several deep breaths and repeat to yourself that the situation is what it is and there is nothing that you can do to change it. What happened cannot be changed, although in some instances you might be able to make changes the next time around that may have a positive impact on your future.
When you can be fully present in your life, rather than spending a lot of time dwelling on the past or future, you are better positioned to decrease your suffering and become more at peace with the world around you.
When you find yourself becoming upset in any situation, determine first whether you are able to make any changes that might improve your circumstances later. For example, if you are frequently getting caught in bad traffic, you might want to consider taking a different route or leaving at a different time. If you were just passed up for a promotion you’d been promised, perhaps you might want to start looking for another job and/or improving your skill set to increase your odds of getting a better position. When traveling or caught in traffic, try listening to some music that puts you in a better frame of mind. Anytime you can make a positive change, do so; otherwise, practice letting go of your expectations and accepting the moment just as it is.
Practicing radical acceptance can be a way of reducing your stress levels, as you accept the reality of what is occurring in the moment and let go of everything that is outside of your control. When you can be fully present in your life, rather than spending a lot of time dwelling on the past or future, you are better positioned to decrease your suffering and become more at peace with the world around you. That’s a skill that comes in handy year-round, not just during the holidays.
For help developing and practicing radical acceptance, contact a therapist in your area who is well-versed in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) skills.
Linehan, M. (1993). Cognitive-behavioral therapy of borderline personality disorder. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
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