Let true acceptance be written on your heart. Dr Claire Weekes
It was the 80s and my life was frenetic. I was married with two very young children and getting as much work as I could as a relief teacher and then taking on a role as an English and French teacher. I loved my life and felt fulfilled!
However, I took on too much and my anxiety and obsessive worrying rose to a new level. The term anxiety wasn’t bandied around as it is today. I was worried about my obsessive worrying and irrational fears. I even worried about worrying!
I distinctly remember going to a bookshop and a book caught my eye. It was Peace from Nervous Suffering by Dr Claire Weekes. I had never heard of her but the title was compelling. For whatever reason I chose this book, all I can say it completely changed my life and was exactly what I needed at the time.
It changed my relationship to my fears and irrational worries. It helped me realise that I was not going mad, that it was anxiety and I learnt to accept this and did my best not to judge myself. Dr Weeke’s mantra so apt and succinct was face, accept (observe all the reactions in your body), float (take a deep breath and separate from it) and let time pass.
Dr Weekes is known today as the best person on anxiety in the last century. She herself suffered from crippling anxiety and combined with her personal experiences and her lifetime career as a pioneering scientist and medical practitioner, delivered the books that saved tens of thousands of lives and changed history.
In her book “The Woman Who Cracked the Anxiety Code: The Extraordinary Life of Dr Claire Weekes” Judith Hoare wrote,
“Weekes knew the effect anxiety had on the body, later describing in her books “the whiplash of panic” and the “electrifying quality of sensitised panic” to communicate to a non-sufferer the way in which continued distress prepared the body to ever more swiftly respond. The nervous system became primed to experience anxiety more quickly and savagely than ever. It had become “sensitised,” and understanding this process was the key to recovery. Desensitisation would follow as a natural consequence. That is, there was no need to practise becoming desensitised to whatever was particularly feared.
So instead of structured exposure to fears, she prescribed total acceptance of the fear as the way out of distress and panic. The problem was inside, not outside. To address it required total acceptance of what felt unacceptable. For it was exactly this fighting against tension, fear, anxiety and panic that perpetuated the problem. Weekes’ treatment protocol was just six words: face, accept, float, let time pass. It was not designed to eradicate all the stresses of life, but to enable people to find their own way out of distress. It was, she would later say, simple but not always easy. Her point was that it worked.”
Dr Claire Weekes’ solution face, accept, float and let time pass became my mantra and through the roller coaster ride of life, with all the challenges it brings, it has held me in good stead.
I have never allowed my anxiety to get in the way of what I wanted to do or be. I kept the learnings from Dr Claire Weekes in my heart and I would revisit her book Peace from Nervous Suffering many times over the years.
Years later I learnt about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and it further honed my approach to dealing with my anxiety.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a form of behavioural therapy that combines mindfulness skills with the practice of self-acceptance of your thoughts and feelings.
Another key aspect of ACT is that quality of life is mostly dependent on commitment and action in alignment with your values.
In practising ACT, the goal is to change your relationship with the thoughts and feelings you have and accept them, rather than trying to get rid of them, so that they no longer hold you back from living a fulfilling life. This aligns very well with Dr Claire Weeke’s approach of face, accept, float and let time pass.
According to Dr Russ Harris, well renowned ACT trainer who has written several books on ACT including the very popular book, The Happiness Trap, there are six core processes in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
Contacting the Present Moment
The aim here is to become more mindful and engage fully in whatever is happening in this moment, with curiosity and without judgment. We can get so absorbed with our thoughts, ruminating about the past or worrying about the future that often we can be on automatic pilot, not being present at all.
Mindfulness is found in ancient spiritual and religious traditions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. It has only been a short period of time that Western psychology has acknowledged the benefits of developing mindfulness skills.
Dr Russ Harris says,
“We can use mindfulness to ‘wake up’, connect with ourselves, and appreciate the fullness of each moment of life. We can use it to improve our self-knowledge—to learn more about how we feel and think and react. We can use it to connect deeply and intimately with the people we care about, including ourselves. And we can use it to consciously influence our own behavior and increase our range of responses to the world we live in. It is the art of living consciously—a profound way to enhance psychological resilience and increase life satisfaction.”
Defusion (Watch your Thinking)
This is about stepping back and detaching from your thoughts. It is easier said than done particularly when there is an emotional component to them. The idea here is to let your thoughts come and go. Hold them lightly without being consumed by them.
You need to recognise thoughts, feelings and memories for what they really are – just words and pictures, allowing them to come and go without resisting them.
Sometimes, we can be consumed and in fact enslaved by certain thoughts. The monkey mind is an apt term for this type of thinking. For example, it can be ruminating about the past, being fearful of the future or even something that a person said to you.
It is such a relief to know we are not our thoughts. They often are there as a result of our patterns of behaviour or past experiences which have been triggered.
Acceptance (Open Up)
This is when you make space for those thoughts, feelings and sensations to be there. Let them be. Once you start getting frustrated that these thoughts are persisting you will get caught up in them again.
It is important here to separate yourself from those thoughts. You are so much more than persistent and unwanted thoughts, feelings, sensations, images.
Rather than thinking I am not good enough, reframe the thought to say I am having the thought that I am not good enough. This can help you unhook from the thought.
When we talk about the mind, we are talking about two distinct elements. There is the thinking self and the observing self. We are all clear about the thinking mind, generating thoughts, memories, judgments, plans, imagining etc.
The observing self is the aspect of us that is aware of whatever we are thinking, judging etc. In ACT this is called self-as-context. In eastern philosophy it is called pure awareness.
Dr Russ Harris states, “As you go through life, your body changes, your thoughts change, your feelings change, your roles change, but the “you” that’s able to notice or observe all those things never changes. It’s the same “you” that’s been there your whole life. With clients, we generally refer to it as “the observing self” rather than use the technical term “self-as-context.”
When we talk about stepping back and observing our thoughts, this is what we mean. This is the ability to be aware of your thoughts without being immersed in them, being able to have some level of detachment. Impossible at times I know!
Values (know what matters)
This is an integral part of the ACT process. This is when you clarify what your core values are, how you want to behave in all facets of your life.
Dr Russ Harris compares values to a compass because they give us direction and guidance on our ongoing journey in life. When we define our values, it helps us be more aware of who we really are and what we stand for.
This is when you take action in alignment with your values. This gives you momentum, the important thing here it is whatever actions you decide to take you know that you are following your core values.
Skills that can help you live a values-based life include developing mindfulness and meditation skills, time management, practising self-care and compassion as well as developing resilience.
Committed action means “doing what it takes” to live in alignment with our values even if that brings up pain and discomfort. it’s the ability to “be present, open up, and do what matters.”
The greater our ability to be fully conscious, to be open to our experience, and to act on our values, the greater our quality of life because we can respond far more effectively to the problems and challenges life inevitably brings.
By living this way, engaging fully in our lives and living in alignment with our values, we develop a sense of meaning and purpose and we experience a sense of vitality.
True success is when you are living a values-based life, being fully engaged in the present no matter how you are feeling and being fully open to your experiences. You may end up not achieving all the goals you set out to do but if you are living a life guided by your values you are living a successful life.
In summary, ACT stands for:
A= Accept your thoughts and feelings and be present
C= Choose a valued direction
T= Take action.
The reality is those of us who suffer from anxiety cannot run away from it. It won’t magically disappear. It may quieten at times but it rears its ugly head at the most inopportune of times. Certainly, the chaos of the last two years of a global pandemic has led to heightened anxiety worldwide.
Dr Claire Weekes was clearly years ahead of her time and changed the way anxiety was understood. I am so thankful for whatever reason I picked up her book that day many years ago. Later, learning and practising ACT has even further helped me understand, accept my anxiety and just get on with my life.
My mantra is face, accept, float, let time pass (thanks to Dr Claire Weekes) as well as be present, open up, and do what matters (thanks to Dr Russ Harris).
Such simple words but so powerful!
If you are interested in learning more about ACT and other evidence-based tools and strategies to coach yourself to a more fulfilling life as well as tips to integrate mindfulness, check out my Life Journal online course here.