Surrender and Acceptance

It may seem odd to use words like “surrender” and “acceptance “ when referring to how to manage an anxiety disorder, but I’ve come to appreciate just how valuable thee concepts are when trying to cope with anxiety. We get so caught up in trying to eliminate anxiety because we believe that the source of our problem is experiencing anxiety in the first place. What if that really isn’t true at all? What if the problem is caused by our efforts to control the anxiety and not the anxiety itself?

I have worked with a gentleman for several months who has had Obsessive Compulsive Disorder for close to 40 years. His OCD takes the form of having to make sure he has the right thought when he performs everyday activities such as lifting a glass from the table or picking up the daily newspaper. His OCD tells him that if he doesn’t have the right type of thought then something bad will happen and so he must repeat the activity and be sure he has the right thought. In essence, he has been trying to control whether or not bad things will happen…trying to control the future. Another client had similar patterns. He believed he had to brush his teeth in a certain way and put his shoes away in his closet at night aligned just right or his adult children wouldn’t be safe. Their OCD made them believe that by doing these things they were influencing the future and/or protecting those they loved the most. This is often called “magical thinking”. What seems to have helped both of these men more than anything else is to surrender and accept that they often have little control over what happens. While this may seem like a simple and obvious concept, it was quite a profound shift for both of these men. And interestingly, as they “surrendered” and let go of trying to control the outcome their anxiety has reduced. This cognitive shift allowed them to take the “risks” they felt were inherent in doing the exposure work that is so necessary when recovering from OCD.

The first client had to pick up his coffee/newspaper and allow whatever type of thought he had to just be there – if that thought was about something bad happening he had to just let it be and take the chance. Similarly, the second client had to not brush his teeth in exactly the right way and not put his shoes away aligned properly and take the chance that something bad could happen. Making these “magical thoughts” explicit and then doing behavioral experiments to test out the validity of their beliefs has made all the difference for both of these men, and both have talked at length about how important the concepts of “surrender” and “acceptance ‘ were in their recovery process.

Robert W. McLellarn, Ph.D.

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