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Letting Go (L)

Imagine playing catch near a swampy body of water.  When the ball inevitably lands in muck, someone has to retrieve it.


There are two ways to handle this task.  We can plod through the swamp in a steadfast manner, grab the ball, and plod back.  Alternatively, we can gingerly walk in a hesitant fashion, flinching each time muck touches our ankles.


Experience suggests that the former, unflinching approach is the preferable strategy.  Why?  Because a healthy portion of swamp-related discomfort is not caused by the swamp itself.


It is brought on by attempts to resist it.


The same goes, research shows, for many forms of discomfort.   Make a pie chart of the suffering caused by anxiety.  A slice of the pie is not caused by anxiety itself, but by our efforts to avoid it.  Make a pie chart of the suffering caused by pain.  One of those slices is not caused by pain itself, but by our attempts to fight it.  Struggling against feelings and thoughts often makes them worse.  This is why it makes sense to practice “letting go.”


To let go of something is to accept it; to refrain from making attempts to change it, at least for the time being.  The form of acceptance most applicable here is an evidence-based technique called “experiential acceptance.”


We have a rich array of inner experiences as human beings.  Experiential acceptance means letting these experiences unfold without trying to weaken them, strengthen them, shorten them, lengthen them, or otherwise change them in any way.  It is the act of allowing thoughts and feelings to simply be as they are.


To practice experiential acceptance, we let anxiety “do its thing” unfettered by attempts to control it. Imagine anxiety as a wave that wants to act like wave.  Waves tend to emerge, rise, and fade in a smooth, fluid manner.  This is how anxiety is inclined to behave as it moves through our body.  It wants to appear, swell to a peak, and gradually dissipate.


But when we attempt to control anxiety, we interfere with its natural course.  This gives it a jagged, jerky, lurchy feeling that makes it more unpleasant — like a wave that crashes unpredictably instead of rising and falling fluidly.


Now picture having two windows built into your body: one on your chest and one on your back.  The first lets anxiety in when it is ready to come in.  The second lets anxiety out when it is ready to go out.  This is what it is like to accept anxiety.  When an anxious wave is rolling toward you, lift up your windows and let the wave flow through.




Intuitively, it seems as though resisting anxiety would make it better and acceptance make it worse. Studies strongly show, however, the opposite is the case. Anxiety fades and becomes less disruptive when we work on letting go.



Dylan M. Kollman, PhD