Using Radical Acceptance to Cope with Parkinson's Disease

Receiving a new diagnosis of Parkinson's disease can be both validating and scary. It is common for questions to arise and strong emotions to come up. While no two individuals have the same experience, it’s safe to say each person with Parkinson’s is impacted in some significant way. Not only are individuals affected, but family members as well. In working with clients, I’ve noticed it’s not uncommon to get stuck, understandably, in a place of sadness and/or anger. This may be the opportunity to consider additional support, skills, or approaches to help move forward.

Radical acceptance for Parkinson's

With clients that I work with in therapy, I utilize principles and techniques from Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). This therapy includes a section called “Radical Acceptance” which is defined, simply as living in the reality of the present as painful or unwelcome as it may be. Different than the typical understanding of acceptance as approval, radical acceptance encourages one to reduce suffering and move towards a problem solving approach.1 It is not a snap your fingers concept but rather a practice that can take time to learn. A simplistic example of this coping with the weather. Living in New England, we can have pretty long winters. This year, I found myself longing for Spring as yet another snowfall occurred. However, if I went outside during a March snowstorm wearing Spring clothing because I want it to be Spring, this would not be practicing radical acceptance. I may not like or approve of the snow in March but I accept that it is happening and will practice that acceptance by dressing warmly.

When to use it

Radical acceptance does not mean one simply jumps into living in reality. I like to share with clients that there is usually a grieving period where many emotions can come up, such as sadness, despair, and anger as one moves towards practicing radical acceptance. That’s okay and quite normal. The challenging part is to keep practicing through the intense emotions. Translating to the more significant. Perhaps a difficult day has turned into a difficult month. Thoughts keep entering of “Why is my life this way? I wish my life was different” and “It’s not fair”. If you’re a person experiencing that challenges of PD, it’s not uncommon to have these thoughts from time to time. However, if you notice they start to repeat and lead to rumination they can interrupt quality of life.

How to use it

The first step of radical acceptance is noticing you’re in a place of willfulness or willingness. Physical signs of willfulness can be tense muscles, racing thoughts and trying to change the situation. If you’re interested in staying in this emotional place, that’s okay! If you’d like to practice moving towards radical acceptance, that’s a sign of willingness. Here’s a way to begin: Start with noticing where you are, either through a brief mindfulness exercise, or the simple act of noticing your breath. Tell yourself this is a space to practice experiencing yourself right where you are. Pause to notice your emotions, where they may be coming up in your body. Feel free to write down notes or mentally observe this state. Then bring into your awareness the concept of radical acceptance. Consider how you may be able to incorporate it into your current thoughts or actions. Consider how to be gentler with yourself as you go about the act of living with Parkinson’s symptoms or being a care partner. Consider setting a limit on your activity due to a symptom, even if you really want to push through. Consider setting a boundary with a loved one to protect your own space for self-care. Do not be surprised if your own willfulness re-enters, it usually does. Return your mind to the center, wise space of willingness. Bring your mind back to your wise center again and again.

Radical Acceptance is a skill that can take some time and practice. Once it becomes more routine, it can certainly be a useful strategy to help cope with the ups and downs of a Parkinson’s disease diagnosis.

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