Why Does It Seem Like Everyone Has Anxiety These Days?
It’s all well and good that we keep “opening a dialogue” about anxiety, but what does it really amount to if “anxiety” is more rampant now than ever before?
Let’s play a little game: Google Trends search the term “mental health” from 2004 to now. You’ll find that search queries have doubled since the early 2000s. “Self-care” has gone from a negligible 10 on their scale to 100 in recent times, meaning that the term has gone from incredibly low interest to peak popularity. Taking care of yourself really isn’t a new concept, so why is “self-care” only recently gaining momentum?
It's obvious that people love to talk about mental health and self-care. They’ve become era-defining buzzwords, but for all the talking about it, what is the actual result we have to show for it? Major global organizations like the World Health Organization report that mental health problems continue to grow worse as time goes on.
These days, it feels like everyone has anxiety and wants to claim this diagnosable disorder as a personality trait. Not only is it becoming socially acceptable for people to be a mess and let their problems consume them, it’s romanticized! Look, there are individuals out there with major mental health struggles and we never want to discount that, but for those of us who don't struggle with a clinical disorder, it's normal to experience stressful days now and then (that's life!) Everyday anxiety is not a disorder and we need to draw the line in the sand once and for all.
You Evolved To Feel Anxious Every Now and Then
Anxiety comes in plenty of shapes and forms, so it’s easy for someone to overreact and think that those stomach butterflies are a diagnosable disorder. Anyone who has experienced real, chronic anxiety attacks will tell you that those butterflies are nothing compared to the physically and mentally debilitating feeling of a mental disorder. There’s a medical, diagnosable definition for anxiety, and then there’s everyday anxiety.
Take a look at a typical news cycle any day of the week and there’s no telling just how anxious the latest stories will make you feel. Economists are telling us that we’ve got record inflation to the extent that typical American families have to front an extra $5,000 to afford the same basic goods they bought a couple years ago. Murmurs of an impending recession are floating around with some publications insisting that we’re not quite there yet while others suggest that the recession has already begun. Tack on the 2022 midterm election cycle, where politicians are fighting tooth and nail to make their perspective on current events known, and wars abroad that segments of the U.S. population demand intervention while others exclaim a need for isolationism – there’s plenty to be anxious about!
This still doesn’t necessarily mean that you have an anxiety disorder. Now, lighter feelings of anxiety shouldn’t necessarily be invalidated on the basis of them being far less severe than a full-blown panic attack. That said, those fleeting emotions of nerves are actually part of the normal human emotions you evolved to have. A healthy dose of anxiety is okay…and actually good for you!
Wendy Suzuki, a professor of neural science and psychology at the Center for Neural Science at New York University, penned a book called Good Anxiety: Harnessing the Power of the Most Misunderstood Emotion. Anxiety is misunderstood, she explains, because anxiety actually evolved as a tool to protect us. Rather than succumbing and playing the victim to our emotions, Dr. Suzuki feels that we should use those heightened feelings to be more productive. She even goes so far to say that anxiety gives us gifts!
According to Dr. Suzuki, anxiety can temporarily destroy our focus. We get really caught up in lengthy “what if” lists crafted in our minds that scare us, but our response should actually be channeling that stress response into something productive like swapping the “what if” list for a to-do list.
Our stress response and the anxiety response evolved to be resolved with an action.
“It's satisfying because, again, going back to evolution, our stress response and the anxiety response evolved to be resolved with an action. Our stress is getting our muscles active to do something to take some action,” Dr. Suzuki shared in an interview with NPR.
Dr. Suzuki came to the conclusion that when people are faced with “stress-inducing situations where there’s at least one way out of it,” they become more resilient. “That builds up what’s called stress inoculation. You learn something, [so] that can go into your resilience piggy bank,” she explained.
Is America’s Convenience Standard Making Us All Too Comfortable?
This checks out with how humans have historically lived throughout our entire history. Honestly, it feels a bit trivial to read about people experiencing “climate anxiety” over climate change, for example. “Do you have 'eco-anxiety'? Here's how to find out,” reads one recent headline from CNN. But isn’t eco-anxiety just a definitive sign of privilege? During most of human history, a vast majority of humans experienced anxious feelings over climate, but not on the macro scale like we do today.
They asked themselves things like: “Will I be able to harvest food this season?” “Will my fields finally yield crops?” “Will I have enough resources to make it through the winter?” That’s climate anxiety, if you ask me. For much of human history, people haven’t worried so much about hypothetical unknowns because they didn’t have it so good: They had to strive daily for survival.
Eco-anxiety and climate anxiety aren’t the only new strains of anxiety that society appears to be suffering from. The American Psychological Association (APA) conducted research that found 52% of Americans said political elections are “a very or somewhat significant” source of stress, giving people carte blanche to snag the oppression points for “Election Stress Disorder.” People get so caught up in election-related anxiety that you get major magazines sharing election anxiety-reduction Spotify playlists or, in the years that President Trump was in office, “strategies for dealing with anxiety in Donald Trump's America.”
Whatever the popular narrative is about anxiety in culture doesn’t appear to be presenting a real solution.
The standard of convenience and comfort that we have grown accustomed to has also led many Americans to feel easily overwhelmed by any amount of adversity. When, en masse, we don’t have to face adversity or we’re given a pat on the back for succumbing to it, we don’t build resilience. If we endure adversity and adapt instead of surrendering to it, we’ll develop a higher degree of resilience.
Top psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth detailed this idea of grit and developing your own sense of agency in her TED talk that received over 27 million views. To Duckworth, anyone is capable of persevering. Some are “naturals” while others have to “strive” for perseverance, but she came to the conclusion that overcoming great adversity at a young age can harden someone into being able to better handle adversity later on in life. Learned helplessness and complacency when facing anxiety can be overcome, but in order to do so, you should strive to understand the root of your feelings and have an honest conversation with yourself.
So What Therapy or Tips and Tricks Actually Work?
Many people’s anxiety may be at disordered levels, and I’m of course sympathetic to that struggle. However, society has been setting the bar way too low for what actually constitutes anxiety, allowing anyone who feels anxious to fit a serious diagnosis. Simply because I’m arguing that anxiety is really overplayed in our society, I’m not trying to say we shouldn’t talk about the issue itself or help people feel at ease.
Rather, I’m saying that whatever the popular narrative is about anxiety in culture doesn’t appear to be presenting a real solution. It’s great that there's a growing discussion about mental health, but if all we’re accomplishing with it is acknowledgement of feelings and not learning how to take action on the root of the issues, then we’re not really addressing the mental health crisis, we’re just putting a band-aid on it.
Stressful work situations, family drama, and anxiety over world events are all part of our normal experience as humans but they’re certainly not the same as actual anxiety disorders. If you’re feeling anxiety and have been working on understanding the root causes, I’d next urge you to take a look at some holistic ways to deal with anxiety that can alleviate your symptoms without the need for overprescribed, ineffective chemical prescriptions.
One method is journaling your experience when anxiety occurs, where it happens, what is physically and mentally happening at the time, and how long the feelings last. Perhaps in these journals, you work to connect the dots and pinpoint patterns between experiences. Another method is to list your fears and interview yourself about when you started feeling that way without giving yourself any personal judgment.
Exercise isn’t a cure-all for relieving anxiety, but it’s a great way to jumpstart the neurochemicals in your brain which naturally reduce stress: serotonin and gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA). Regular movement and exercise can control that fight-or-flight feeling you get from anxiety and boosts your mental resilience.
Getting some sort of exercise daily can help you become more resilient to anxiety symptoms.
Whatever your favorite type of exercise is – biking, walking, running, strength training, pilates, yoga, dance, or group sports – getting some sort of exercise daily can help you become more resilient to anxiety symptoms.
Unplugging from Social Media
Those heated convos you have on Twitter? Yep, they’re anxiety-inducing because of how tribalistic people are when they pit themselves against each other. If you’re surrounding yourself with mental stress on the daily or rely on quick dopamine boosts from notifications, it’s no wonder you feel anxious.
I analyzed the best tips and tricks from certified IG queen Lauryn Bosstick, who runs the powerhouse Skinny Confidential brand, for unplugging from social media. Her best pieces of advice for reducing social media-related anxiety are as follows: turning off/muting your notifications regularly, setting a certain time limit on each social media platform every day, scheduling day-long (or multi-day, if you can do it!) social media breaks every week, unfollowing/muting accounts that make you feel bad, blocking anyone who sends hateful comments or DMs, and using social media for positive inspiration, not comparison.
Honing In on Your Nutrition
I’m not advising that you obsess over food in an unhealthy manner, but it’s worth doing a bit of self-reflection and really analyzing if your diet is benefitting you or holding you back. Our standard American diet puts processed carbs and sugars at the top of our food pyramid, but psychologists have found that reducing sugary carbs in lieu of proteins first and healthy fats second can be a major anxiety reducer. In fact, meat eaters have actually been found to have lower levels of anxiety than vegans, so load up on quality sources of meats and seafood.
If you’re working with a good diet to begin with, additional supplementation from natural remedies can help you feel less anxious. The herb ashwagandha has been shown to lower cortisol levels and improve your mood and the mineral magnesium can relax your muscles and nervous system. Both of these can be taken daily in pill form or through herbal drinks.
Having an outside expert who has your best interests at heart is beneficial for examining what exactly is making you feel stressed out. A therapist can challenge your internal narratives and perspective to help you understand what’s worth worrying about and what actions you can take to reduce your stress in your particular circumstances.
World-renowned psychologist Jordan Peterson said it really well in an interview, “You come to see me because there’s something wrong. Maybe you come to see me because a destructive element of you is wreaking havoc in your life. I’m on the side of the part of you that wants to aim up, man. That’s what I’m on the side of. Okay, now I don’t know what that means in your case but we’re going to talk about it. Am I going to affirm what you think? No, it’s not up to me to affirm it. You don’t get a casual pat on the back from a therapist for your preexisting axiomatic conclusions. That’s not therapy. That’s a rubber stamp.”
While there are legitimate reasons to feel anxious in today’s social, political, and economic climates, there needs to be a solid distinction made between real anxiety disorders and the natural, everyday anxiety that all people face. Yet lately, the lack of nuance around mental health conversations appears to be making people feel more motivated to burrow into their feelings and demand a pat on the back instead of resolving their issues. The truth is, though, you were built to be much more resilient than society thinks you are!
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