Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Make This the Year You Accept Your Anxiety

After all, it’s just part of being human.

Key points

  • It's normal to feel anxious sometimes.
  • Struggling against these feelings has been shown to make them worse.
  • Researchers have found that allowing yourself to experience anxiety results in having less worry overall.

It’s January—the time of year when the glow of the holiday season has receded, colder weather is starting to settle in, and we are faced with the hard realization that our optimistic New Year’s resolutions take actual work, if not an outright struggle, to achieve. In fact, many of us have already given up those resolutions entirely. For all these reasons, many are sliding into what Adam Grant famously referred to as languishing [i]feeling “meh”—or potentially more significant distress and suffering. It’s no surprise, therefore, that each January, my clinics see a significant uptick in new referrals.

If I could provide any January advice in a single post, I would say this: The number-one reason why we struggle with anxiety this time of year is because we expect to be feeling and performing better, and we tend to beat ourselves up for feeling anxious.


Anxiety is normal.

You are far too important a resource to yourself, to your friends and family, and to the world to fall prey to self-criticism. Aren’t the expectations of being human enough of a challenge already?

True, you may not have lost those 20 pounds yet, reclaimed your sobriety, or even started being kinder to your mailman. But if you think about it, January is probably the worst time of year to take on a new project, given the letdown from the holidays and the weather.

Here is a (new) New Year’s resolution that is actually worthwhile: Stop berating yourself and instead practice self-compassion and self-acceptance.

In order to do this, it’s critical to accept our anxiety.

In a landmark experimental study at Boston University’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders,[ii] researchers examined what happens when individuals with anxiety disorders accept or suppress their negative emotions. They showed anxious individuals a brief but extremely distressing video involving brutally violent footage, while asking about their levels of anxiety and measuring their physiological reactivity (heart rate) before, during, and after the experiment.

Before watching the video, however, participants were randomly assigned to one of two conditions. In the first condition, participants were instructed to accept their emotions: “Struggling against natural emotions can intensify and prolong your distress. Allow yourself to accept your emotions without trying to get rid of them.”

In the second condition, participants were told to suppress their feelings: “You should not have to put up with more discomfort and distress than is necessary. Try to reduce your negative emotions by controlling them.”

Can you guess what happened?: Both groups reported distress from watching the video clip. However, participants in the acceptance group displayed less anxiety after watching the film than those in the suppression group. Furthermore, suppression participants experienced an increase in heart rate while watching the video, whereas the acceptance participants experienced a decrease in heart rate relative to their baseline before watching the same video. Those who practiced acceptance were objectively less physiologically stressed than they were before they experienced anxiety in the first place.

This is just one example of hundreds of research studies that have shown the power of acceptance in coping with anxiety. When we fight anxiety, it gets worse. When we recognize that anxiety is part of life and accept it, it gets better.

Yes, it’s that simple.

One of the most encouraging up-and-coming clinical psychotherapeutic approaches for treating anxiety (and other concerns) is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT.[iii] At the core of this approach is the notion that by accepting our feelings, as opposed to fighting them, life immediately becomes easier.

Here is a wonderful ACT metaphor, which crystalizes this concept:

Imagine that you fall into a large hole in the ground. You cannot climb out, and there are no escape routes. You feel trapped and distressed.

However, you search the hole and find a tool bag that contains a shovel. You immediately reach into the bag, pull out the shovel, and start digging.

You dig faster and faster, frantically trying to dig yourself out of the hole. After several minutes, you are tired, sweaty, covered in dirt, and deeper into the hole than you were before you started digging.

You take a break, but quickly grow tired and distressed by your predicament, so you pick up the shovel and start digging again. You increase your rate and intensity of digging. But this only leaves you more tired, sweaty, dirty, and further into the hole.

Eventually, you realize that the shovel is just making things worse, and there is only one option: Accept that you’re stuck in a hole and make the most of it.

Once you do that, you no longer feel trapped and distressed, and over time, you even start to like being in the hole, since you have plenty of time to sit and think.

The paradox, and irony, of acceptance is that once we stop fighting against negative emotions, they tend to lessen and often go away entirely.

Stop digging. Only by accepting where we are and what we feel right now can we truly change.


{i] Grant, Adam. "There's a Name for the Blah You're Feeling: It's Called Languishing." The New York Times, April 19, 2021

[ii] Campbell-Sills, Laura, David H. Barlow, Timothy A. Brown, and Stefan G. Hofmann. "Effects of suppression and acceptance on emotional responses of individuals with anxiety and mood disorders." Behaviour research and therapy 44, no. 9 (2006): 1251-1263.

[iii] Hayes, Steven C., Kirk D. Strosahl, and Kelly G. Wilson. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Second Edition: The Process and Practice of Mindful Change. New York, USA: Guilford Publications, 2012.

More from Psychology Today

More from David H. Rosmarin Ph.D., ABPP

More from Psychology Today