I believe anxiety is running rampant in our society. We need to help each other learn to calm our nervous systems and relax. Short term stress can be good for us but long term stress can affect our health, our relationships, our sleep and our functioning.
Once I had the privilege of being with a group of 10 twenty-somethings for a retreat. At the end of their time we were talking about what they had to go back to, and I was surprised to learn how many of them live with debilitating anxiety. One fellow said that sometimes at night, as he lies in bed, he has to remind himself to breathe. That hurt my heart.
Later I was in a similar group of thirty-somethings. At the end of the discussion, a question was asked about “What is holding you back in life.” Every single person in the room said, “fear.” Again, I was shocked to see how many beautiful, intelligent people live in fear.
These two experiences made me wonder about anxiety and fear. Is this epidemic caused by something in our culture? Is it something in this generation specifically, or is it a combination of factors? I started asking friends for their opinions as I tried to sort this out and I’d love to hear yours.
- I went to a neuropsychology conference once on the explosion of childhood behavior disorders and it was postulated that children are now being incubated in an environment of low-grade stress, which is compromising their immune systems and lowering their resistance to disorders like ADHD. Could this same logic be applied to anxiety?
At a similar conference, these disorders were linked to environmental toxins, again causing a compromised immune system and the easier triggering of latent issues like anxiety disorders.
- My husband’s theory was that we now have too many choices. Formerly, people grew up in well-defined cultures with their own rules, norms, taboos, and expectations. Nowadays, kids are members of national and international cultures defined by media and the internet. Choice is often equated with power, but perhaps too much choice can cause increased fear and anxiety.
- My daughter’s theory is that because we are constantly bombarded with stimulation that is anxiety producing, like horror movies, violent video games, the nightly news, and even the Discovery Channel, we learn about all the things that can go wrong — which creates this stressful soup we live in.
- One could make a similar argument about our inability to unplug. We are wired at the hip to our phones and electronic devices; we can stream movies, TV shows and music at any time from any device and we have forgotten how to be quiet. In my work with college students one thing mystified me. It is their inability to be alone. They told me they were afraid to be alone, and always texted or talked to friends if they were forced to be alone. What caused these changes? Could the neuropathways for peaceful existence that we’ve neglected by being constantly wired in have died off? Are they re-growable?
- I led a week-long seminar over spring break with college students. On one day they are required to be silent for twelve hours. It is the day of the week they fear the most. At the end of the week, it is the one thing most highly talked about and valued. But being alone means facing yourself. Perhaps part of our anxiety comes from not being at peace with who we are.
We could speculate on the causes all day but what do we do about anxiety?
No one should have to live with debilitating fear and anxiety. If you are living like that, get help! My husband, the retired therapist, saw a lot of people that came in with these symptoms. He taught biofeedback and relaxation techniques that really helped people learn to calm their own bodies. Learning to breathe deeply is the first step in relaxation.
Many times, fear and anxiety are linked to past trauma. These days there are wonderful healing therapies for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Look for specialists in EDMR or others who identify as a specialist in trauma or anxiety.
PTSD is triggered when a predictable set of occurrences happen at one time: A person, or situation that seemed safe, suddenly becomes unsafe. Something startles you, and at some point, you think you might die. This causes anxiety and fear to get “stuck” in the animal (fight or flight) part of your brain. The above-mentioned therapies can help move the trauma to the logic part of your brain where it can be processed and healed.
Prayer and meditative practices can help relieve stress. There is an app I use called the Insight Timer that has hundreds of guided meditations. You can choose the length and theme or just use the timer to sit in silence.
In my opinion, one of the most commons things that cause stress is having a calendar with no margin – that is, no room for contingencies. I learned the hard way that life is what happens in the margins, and if you have no margin in your schedule, then when life happens (the car breaks down, your mom needs your help, a child’s project is due…) there is no room and everything becomes stressful. I’d encourage a strong examination of your schedule with a trusted advisor to see how to create margin in your life.
The best short term cure for anxiety is to get your mind off yourself. Anything you can do to think outside of yourself will help. Call a friend, take the dog for a walk, gaze on something beautiful, serve the homeless, or go to a funny movie. All of these things will help, at least temporarily.
Let me know what you have found helpful in getting rid of your fear and anxiety!
Picture of stressed woman