By Isaac Smith, LCSW
November 20, 2019
The Problem With Having Problems:
How Acceptance Can Help With Depression and Anxiety
Throughout our lives, it is often the case that we will face certain realities which challenge us, or at times, make us feel like we have completely lost our footing. These realities can be things like dealing with a chronic illness, losing a loved one, being let go from a job, and so on.
While at times it may feel like we won’t ever be able to come back from our “new normal”, if we give ourselves permission, we can learn to interact with such realities in more helpful ways, giving us the final say in how we will, or will not, be defined by them. In order to begin this process, we must first invite acceptance to the table. Before we get ahead of ourselves, however, let’s take a look at what it means to move into acceptance and what acceptance is not.
- Acceptance does NOT mean giving up or throwing in the towel.
- Acceptance is NOT about becoming magically comfortable with wherever you find yourself.
- Instead, acceptance is about giving yourself permission to be wherever you are. After all, to know where you’re going—or where you want to go for that matter—you have to first know where you are, right here, right now.
- Simply put, acceptance is a nonjudgmental way of acknowledging what’s true.
Thus, in order to invoke change, we must first accept our current state of functioning. By doing so, we become both a student and teacher of our own experience, learning to explore how our current reality affects us, our thinking, feeling, and behaving.
Take depression, for example. Sometimes when we are struggling with depression we end up identifying with the depression itself. That is, although struggles like depression (or addiction, etc.) can often feel dominating and oppressive, if we’re not careful, we can end up taking on the role of the “depressed person” instead of viewing our depression as a part of our current experience.
Many times, this is amplified and conditioned by the messages we receive. We interact with friends, family members, and/or healthcare professionals who tell us that we are depressed. Often, without even realizing it, many of us resort to adopting this new role. In other words, we forget who we are and become entangled with a new identity.
Thus, from my vantage point, a large part of making change is about remembering, and/or redefining who we are.
Continuing with the example of depression, if we want to take the depression out of the driver’s seat, we would begin by exploring how our struggle with depression affects us—on physical, spiritual, and emotional levels. This intentional act of purposeful attention is something called mindfulness.
Being mindful helps us observe the quality and somatic expression (how we experience things physically) of our depression, which we will then use to identify the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that either increase or decrease our depressive symptoms.
In order to get more clarity on how a problem like depression affects us, we might ask ourselves questions like:
- How do I view the depression I’m experiencing?
- Do I think I’ll always feel depressed or do I believe my depression can lift?
- What is my mind telling me about the depression I’m facing? What are the thoughts that show up when I’m feeling depressed?
Identifying the ways in which you think about your reality impacts how you do or don’t respond to things like depression when it shows up. In other words, it helps to create some distance between you and the automatic thoughts and feelings that arise, allowing you to make choices that either turn up the volume on your symptoms, or instead, turn them down enough so that you can take action on the things that matter most to you.
Why is this important? Because it’s not about getting rid of what shows up: it’s about tuning in, and having a say about which direction to head, even if something like depression is still hanging on.
Why The Way We Think About Our Problems Matters
As Dr. Theodore Rubin said, “The problem is not that there are problems. The problem is expecting otherwise and thinking that having problems is a problem.”
When we are feeling depressed it’s common to struggle with negative thinking. For example, we might feel that our problems are actually not solvable, or that we are not good at solving our problems. We may even think about how we have made several attempts in the past to solve those problems, but have gotten discouraged because our attempts have not been as successful like we were hoping. As a result, we often end up right back where we started: feeling sad and hopeless.
Firstly, when we’re facing depression, it is important to remember that such feelings and thoughts are normal—in other words, when you’re struggling with depression, such negative thoughts are par for the course. In light of this, it’s best not to make them mean too much, but to see them for what they are: symptoms that something is off.
When we break things down, the truth is that most problems are solvable, and one way or another we can get to where we want—either by finding a solution or learning to accept what’s not within our power to change. The research is pretty clear: solving problems makes us feel powerful, whereas ineffective problem solving leaves us feeling more depressed and anxious. While this probably won’t happen overnight, with some acceptance, patience, and a good plan, we are more likely to get where we want to go.
Where to Start
The first step in this process is figuring out how we tend to look at our problems. We begin by thinking about our thinking. Specifically, we need to take an honest look at how our thinking may be influencing our behavior—that is, we need to understand how we tend to view and look at our problems.
If we think that we will never be able to solve a problem, for example, it is highly probable that this prophecy will come true. Instead, if we adopt an attitude of curiosity about our instant thoughts or emotions, we can identify what thoughts might be getting in the way.
Armed with such knowledge, we can then forecast differently, expecting that sunshine is possible, even if it is hiding behind the clouds.
How to Identify Your Problem Solving Style
We can identify if we have a “helpful” or positive problem solving style if we:
- View problems as obstacles that can be overcome.
- Believe in our ability to solve our problems.
- Are realistic about the time and effort it takes to solve our problems.
- Understand that negative thoughts and difficult emotions are often part of the problem solving process.
On the other hand, we know we have a “helpless” or negative problem solving style if we:
- View problems only as threats.
- Don’t believe in our ability to solve our problems or that our problems are actually solvable.
- Become overly frustrated when faced with problems and end up giving up as a result.
Again, while the goal here is obviously to develop a helpful problem solving style, in all our problem solving efforts we have to start by accepting where we are at. Thus, if you identify that you have more of a helpless problem solving style, that is OK! Inviting acceptance to the table is simply acknowledging where you’re at, which allows you to know where you want to go.
If you’ve been feeling stuck in your problem solving efforts, first acknowledge where you’re at, and then get curious. Ask yourself how it is that you tend to view your problems, and what keeps getting in the way. If you keep running into roadblocks, invite someone you trust into the process and/or seek out the support of an experienced therapist who can help you figure out the sticking points.
About the Author
Isaac Smith, MAT, LCSW, NTP is a holistic psychotherapist with offices in Sacramento and Fair Oaks, CA. He is the owner and founder of Whole Wellness Therapy. He specializes in working with people struggling with addiction, anxiety, depression and grief and loss. Isaac is trained in several modalities, including Motivational Interviewing, Dialectical Behavior Therapy, and Problem Solving Therapy. He is also passionate about the interplay between mental health and nutrition, and is a certified Nutritional Therapy Practitioner. To find out more about Isaac click here: therapy and counseling in Sacramento and Fair Oaks.