Anxiety (and its big brother, fear) is always about something that hasn’t happened yet. Even when the worst does happen, anxiety goes away. It’s not the loss of a limb that is frightening; it’s the anticipation of losing a limb that makes you afraid.
When we perceive a real danger or find ourselves facing something unknown, anxiety is one of the best tools in our self-preservation box . It sharpens our senses and washes our cells with cortisol and adrenaline, which increase energy and strength in the moment. It prepares us to fight or to run.
Being in that state of readiness, though, is exhausting. Eventually, the system is depleted, and a deep tiredness can kick in.
We’ve been bombarded by one disaster after another this year — relief is barely sent to the victims of the first when another catastrophe happens. Hurricanes, forest fires, mudslides, and earthquakes. And these are just the natural disasters, that have always happened on this planet. I haven’t even mentioned political upheaval and terrorism.
According to Psychology Today , Google searches for "anxiety" have tripled in the last decade.
I’m talking ordinary, everyday, garden-variety anxiety, the kind that alternates with hope, depending on what we’re telling ourselves about the situation.
Why the exponential increase ? And what can we do about it?
Technology is partially to blame.
Because we are aware of a past and a future, we’re storytellers. We take our past experience and make it into future predictions. We tell children stories to help them relax into sleep. We also tell them stories to scare them into "good" behavior.
We tell our adult selves stories, too.
A lot of people would swear that this is one of the worst times in history. We’re aghast, watching one tragedy after another. The world is clearly a very scary place. And yet, there is strong evidence that this is actually one of the most peaceful times in recent history .
So, why is anxiety on the rise now ?
One difference between our present and the past is that our knowledge of these horrors is immediate thanks to technology. There was a time, not so long ago, when we heard about catastrophes monthly, or weekly, or once daily, so our exposure was limited. We wrote letters — on paper — to one another.
We read a weekly, and then a morning or evening newspaper. News "junkies" read both . The news of the attack on Pearl Harbor came over the radio, and families gathered around it to listen to the President’s announcement. One announcement.
Even after the advent of television, there were specific times when we could listen to, or watch, the news. The events were not so different from what happens today, but they seemed much further away. They didn’t affect your daily life.
I remember one night of utter terror during the Cuban missile crisis. But the crisis passed, and there seemed to be a return to normalcy.
Now, in the digital age, we are surrounded, 24/7 by sources of information, thanks to technology.
Technology gives us instant and immediate access to information. Much of it is in the form of videos, that are played and replayed, all in living color and surround sound, that give us the impression that we’re personally in the event. That news is in every room of our homes. Not only in the living room, but in the kitchen, the bedroom, even the bathroom, and in our pockets, as our phones buzz, "Check it out!"
Somewhere in the primitive parts of our brains, these are not repeats, but new incidents, one, after another, after another.
Our minds are full of terrifying possibilities, and if we don’t take care of them, we’ll all have PTSD.
Although the news we get is (mostly) true, we don’t have to swallow it whole and relive it. We love our gadgets. We love feeling "up on things."
FOMO (fear of missing out) is actually a word. We can’t turn time back, nor would we want to. (I love my smartphone as much as anyone!) So long as excitement sells advertising, they’ll give us excitement. We can’t change that.
What we can change is what we do with it all.
I limit the amount of news I watch. A half-hour, twice a day, is more than enough to "know what’s going on in the world." Once I’ve seen it, I’ve seen it. I don’t need to keep going back to see it some more.
I hate to say this, being an avid reader myself, but I stick to the headlines. I only read deeper if the subject is something personally useful.
I am aware that the algorithms that bring us advertising tailored to our personal interests also feed us news that is similar to what we’ve been reading. If you only read what agrees with what you’ve read before, you can end up with a very skewed view. (Possibly even fueled by Russian bots! The algorithm doesn’t know the difference.)
When I’m getting too anxious about something I can’t do anything about, I do a reality check:
- Do I really think I can tell the future?
- Are there other ways of thinking about this?
- Is there anything I can do about this? (If there is, I try to do it. If not, I put it on the shelf.)
- Am I okay, right now? Is my family safe? Do we have lodging and food and clothing?
Anxiety tells us to do something, right now (it’s that fight-or-flight reaction), and when we cannot, the anxiety gets worse. Trying to have control over the world is too much for any of us.
It seems counterintuitive, but recognizing that I don’t have power over what I see and hear is wonderful "medicine" for anxiety. I am powerless over nature, I am powerless over the choices our leaders make. I am powerless over other people, and even powerless over certain things about myself.
When I remember that, my anxiety subsides . Then I can consider what I have the power to "do." I can keep my own carbon footprint to a minimum. I can vote for someone I believe will better represent me. I can volunteer or send help to those in need. Small things, but in the aggregate, powerful.
Our bodies evolved in simpler times. Some of our innate reactions can become problematic. It’s useful to recognize that, while we still need these tools, they also can get activated when they’re not appropriate to the real situation. We need to keep our inner story-teller in the rational zone.