Accept The Feeling of Anxiety

Western psychology encourages people to find ways to get rid of their unpleasant feelings. Contrary to Japanese psychology like Morita therapy, which gives people the idea that feelings are uncontrollable. People can live with those unpleasant emotions and still function well; it is all about learning to coexist with those emotions. Have you ever experienced coexisting with unpleasant sensations?

Gregg Krech shares an experience where he was able to coexist with his anxiety.

Nick: You're touching on an area I wanted to ask you about and that's our feelings so many of us are now going through probably negative or very frustrating feelings. You write: 

"Feelings are sensations and the ability to tolerate sensations we'd rather not have is supremely important. Without such tolerance, our lives remain needlessly honourable to our wild and fickle feelings, and our plans get needlessly derailed."

Now we're dealing with an extreme situation and we have all these feelings of frustration, uncertainty, perhaps even anger. So do you want to touch on that Gregg, how we can cope with these feelings that you described as a sensation?

I think that's a really good way to describe it, sensations, because I think sensation perhaps gives us the idea that it's something that can pass quickly or we can handle them. But when we talk about feelings, they can come across as things that we can't control.

Gregg: I think one of the distinctive features of Japanese psychology, in this case, particularly Morita therapy, is a view that is very contrary to most Western psychology. It’s this idea that our feelings are primarily uncontrollable.

So in a traditional meaning Western kind of psychotherapeutic environment, if somebody comes in and they say, the problem I'm having is my feelings. I feel depressed or I feel anxious or I feel lonely then the work that's done therapeutically is trying to help that person to change their feelings.

So they don't feel depressed, and they don't feel anxious, they feel confident. So we start with what I consider to be just a more realistic perspective that we really can't control our feelings, that we can't control feeling anxious, and most of us are finding that out right now.

If you come aware that you're feeling anxious it's not like you can just hit a button and turn it off. So there are lots of methods in Western psychology that attempt to in one way or another get you to the endpoint which is to not be feeling anxious.

In Morita therapy, the endpoint is to accept your feeling of anxiety,  not to change it, but to accept it. That may sound like it's not as optimal of an endpoint as just getting rid of it altogether.

I'm going to suggest to you that it's a much more realistic endpoint which is to accept that you're feeling anxious because you really can't control it. Once you accept it, what you open up is the possibility that you can live your life coexisting with your unpleasant feelings.

In this case, we're talking about anxiety as an example, you could live your life coexisting with anxiety, rather than every time you feel anxious you have to kind of stop what you're doing and work on getting rid of your anxiety. 

The story that I tell, which is a story that just occurred a few years ago, because I had been a living room musician for much of my life.

A few years ago, I decided that I was going to go out and play in public. The music that I play is mostly blues. I'm a blues pianist. I remember I used to go to these blues jams, blues jams were where musicians would go, and then musicians would just get up on stage, they would be called up and there would be a rotation.

It's very spontaneous. You might be a harmonica player or guitar player and you'd be called up and you would just get together and you just start playing with whoever else was on stage to finish the song and then maybe one of the guitar players would get off stage and another one would come up.

I had decided that that year was going to be the year that I got up on stage and played the piano in front of an audience. I waited until the last blues jam of the Year in December because the idea of playing on stage in public at a club was so terrifying to me.

I remember the moment where I was at this blues jam and I had signed up to go up and play, and the person who was running the jam said, Gregg, can you come up here and play the keyboards for us in the next couple of songs.

I remember just the huge adrenaline rush of fear and anxiety, and the tightening up of all my muscles, and just this incredible anxious response. I also remembered that there was nothing I could control about my anxiety, but to accept it.

So while I was feeling that level of fear and anxiety I was putting one foot in front of the other, walking towards the stage, getting up on the stage and sitting down behind a piano. 

Within about 20 seconds, somebody said we're gonna play this song in the key of A. The next thing I knew, I was playing the piano on stage. But I had no confidence, I had an overwhelming sense of anxiety. But I was able to coexist with anxiety and do the thing that was important for me to do.

That's really what we teach people in this kind of psychology is to be able to coexist with depression, with fear, with anxiety, with shyness, with loneliness, whatever challenging feeling that you're facing, and continue to live your life based on what's important for you to do so that you don't give up your life when you're faced with a difficult or an uncomfortable feeling. 

We're in that situation with our anxiety over the pandemic, over the virus, where we find ourselves in fear of our health, family's health, we find ourselves anxious about our jobs.

There are all kinds of circumstances stimulating, fear and anxiety. So it's a wonderful time to practice this, to learn how to coexist with that. Look at what's important for us to do again, it comes back to this issue of what can we control? We can't control our feelings.

So what do we do? We accept them, but we can control how we conduct ourselves. So what do we do? We go shopping for food, we put some of the food into a food bank box at the door, people who can't afford food, we Skype with our mother or our sister or something to see how they're doing. 

We do our work even though we're constantly feeling distracted. We wash the dishes, we clean the house, we do the things that are important for us to do, feeling anxious, feeling afraid and there's great empowerment that comes from that approach to life.

As opposed to feeling that whenever we're faced with anxiety or fear, we're kind of at its mercy. So it's a very different approach to anxiety and fear. I think it's an approach that is a great fit for the challenges that we're facing in this pandemic.