Read time: 8 minutes
- A very natural, human tendency is to resist an unwanted reality. But reacting in this way only causes more pain and, often, self-destructive behavior.
- When life’s stressors arise we should, instead, use acceptance to counter the strong urges that follow.
- Learn how to use urge surfing to embrace negative feelings and urges that do not serve you.
Small stressors—like prolonged high blood sugar, forgetting to take a medication, hitting traffic, or having a frustrating run-in with a co-worker—are an inevitable part of daily life. But it’s the way we respond to those stressors that has such a significant impact on well-being.
In a study published in 2017, researchers found that the longer we hold on to the negative experience of these small stressors, the more likely the day will unfold with compounded stress and unhappiness. Accepting these perceived stressors, however, was linked to greater psychological health.
It’s the accepting—as opposed to oppressing, suppressing, or denying—of these stressors and emotions that is fundamental to mental health and, ultimately, overall well-being. When we choose to accept the reality at hand, we can free ourselves up to see the bigger picture beyond the immediate challenge. Acceptance also allows us to move past the experience, learning from it and letting it go, in order to find peace and freedom.
Recall a recent time when a stressor—or negative emotion—overcame you.
Perhaps your blood sugar spiked surprisingly a few hours after a meal. As much as you tried, you couldn’t bring it down for hours. Each time you checked and rechecked, you only saw an out-of-range number, no matter how much insulin you gave yourself, how much water you drank, or how much walking you did to bring it down.
Sitting at a perpetual high like this can, physically, take its toll: the sickly grogginess that comes with those high blood sugar readings is debilitating enough. But mentally, that built-up anger, frustration, and sadness can equally take a toll. When we actively avoid the negative emotions that come with that high blood sugar, they persist—often, to a breaking point.
That breaking point can look like an angry over-dosing of more insulin. It can also express itself as an outpouring of rage, a spiraling into a rabbit hole of worst-case-scenario health outcomes, or maybe it shows up as retaliation in the form of emotional eating. This breaking point signals a self-destructive reaction we have towards the emotions attached to that high blood sugar.
And this is just one scenario. These negative feelings and the subsequent reactions can be tipped off by any number of stressors from everyday life. Oftentimes, we experience strong emotional reactions which may be accompanied by thoughts or urges to behave in a certain self-destructive way. If we’re in auto pilot mode—which, many of us often are—we are extremely vulnerable to acting on these emotions, trying to meet a perceived need in a way that isn’t actually useful in the long term.
Typically, these harmful reactions are brought on by our response to resist—to resist the pain, sadness, suffering, or any other uncomfortable feeling brought on by life stressors.
But resistance makes the pain, despair, and discomfort that much bigger, adding a layer of suffering on top of it all. Research has even shown that resistance to certain thoughts or feelings can actually lead to their hyperaccessibility, meaning that their influence only becomes stronger the more we attempt to suppress them.
Resistance—in any form, such as suppression, avoidance, or denial—is a natural human tendency. We want things to be different than they are: we want to be well, we want a new job, we want good health for our loved ones, we want to be free of stressors and anxieties. All of these desires are completely normal and acceptable. But the resistance of what is does not change it. It only leads to suffering.
The Antidote to Resistance
What, then, is the alternative? Acceptance.
When we accept reality for what it is—especially when that reality is something that we desperately do not want to be true—we give ourselves the gift of peace and freedom. From this place of acceptance, we can also change what is within our control: learning how to live with it, heal from it, make it better, and use its lessons to help ourselves.
Acceptance of our reality might be one of the most challenging—but also the most life-changing—practices there is. When we accept our present moment for what it is, we allow the experience to run its course. We open ourselves up to see a bigger picture beyond the immediate challenge. With acceptance, we can keep pain from becoming chronic suffering.
Research into acceptance demonstrates its power. Studies have shown that the more accepting we are of ourselves, the likelier we are to be happy. If you accept your painful emotions without judging them, you’re less likely to be psychologically stressed.
To accept does not mean to approve. Rather, acceptance means no longer spending energy fighting the existence of an unwanted reality. Through this acceptance, we allow the pain to dissipate and free ourselves up to see a bigger picture beyond the immediate challenge.
It also gives us the ability to recognize that, no matter what is happening in the present moment—good or bad—it will not last forever. This simple recognition can help spur a sense of gratitude for the blessings or the strength needed to keep going through the challenges.
Urge Surfing When an Emotional Tidal Wave Hits
When going through a challenging period, experiencing difficult emotions, or navigating major changes, accepting those feelings and experiences can feel almost impossible. But it’s during these difficult times that acceptance is most beneficial.
One way to accept life’s daily stressors is through a practice commonly referred to as urge surfing.
Just like an ocean wave, urges gradually build in intensity, peak, and then fade. But more often than not, we forget that they ultimately fade and, instead, act on those peak emotions and intense urges.
Recalling your recent stressor, was there an urge that followed? A breaking point that ensued, or an overwhelming desire to do something that may cause immediate gratification but, in the long run, would ultimately cause harm?
It’s here, at that most climactic stage of emotion, that we can seek acceptance through urge surfing—to accept the discomfort in all its forms rather than attempt to suppress it. When we let go and allow our urges to be, they actually lose their intensity.
The next time you’re aware of an unhelpful urge you don’t want to give into, take time to turn towards it, lean into it, and fully embrace it. This action will go against your natural tendencies: the automatic impulse is to ignore the urge, to push it away. Instead, fully embrace its pull by using the following steps:
Notice the thought, feeling, or craving. Allow yourself to fully feel what you are feeling and think what you are thinking. Ask yourself, what’s the worst thing this feeling can do? Remember, it is only a feeling. It may be uncomfortable, but it is not threatening in any other way. It’s the reaction to these feelings that is most harmful, not the feeling itself.
Accept and attend to the inner experience instead of trying to escape it. As this emotion or feeling increases in intensity, envision it as a wave. Stay on top of the wave—let it be, continue to acknowledge it, and use your breath to ground you.
Use curiosity and feeling as you continue to surf the wave. What sensations are you feeling in your body simultaneously? What is it that you really need? What are you actually, really craving in this moment? Usually, there is a deeper need beneath that urge or craving. Perhaps it’s feeling a sense of loneliness and wanting some company; feeling stress or a difficult emotion and simply wanting some relief. Make sure to ask yourself what it is that you really need.
Remember that you do not have to act on the urge—what you are feeling now will disappear, with time, just like a wave. No matter how strong the urge, whatever sense of desperation or anxiety, you do have a choice. You can stay with the feeling, stay in the discomfort, rather than acting on it. In the long run, it is far more nourishing to sit in your discomfort rather than reaching for something that may temporarily relieve your suffering, but only adds to it in the long run. The urges may rise and fall, they may continue to come. But what you’re feeling now will disappear in time, just like a wave.
Moving through your next stressor, notice the urge to disconnect from sadness, anger, or pain. When the urge arises, remind yourself that staying with the sense of your pain can be transformative. However, if you notice a particular emotion becoming too overwhelming, reach out—to a healthcare provider, your One Drop coach, or a friend. There is great strength in support from others.
As you’re surfing your emotions, acknowledge and accept whatever is happening in that moment, but recognize that it will not last forever. Ironically, it is often the acceptance of the situation that creates the possibility for future change and growth.
This article has been clinically reviewed by Lisa Graham, RN, CDCES, health coach and director of clinical operations at One Drop.