|Posted on 27 November, 2018 at 4:30|
More or less a hundred years ago, Freud recognised that anxiety may be the price we pay for civilisation. Life today is faster, more frantic and over-stimulating than ever before, showing no sign of slowing down any time soon, and anxiety rates seem to be consistently on the rise. According to The Mental Health Foundation, in 2013, there were 8.2 million cases of anxiety in the UK.
Most of us will experience anxiety at some time in our lives, and for many of us it will arise in response to a specific occasion or set of circumstances, such as a job interview, school exam or first date, subsiding again once the nerve-wracking event has passed. For some, however, anxiety is a more frequent visitor, bringing ongoing disruption to day-to-day functioning. Certain situations like driving or travelling long distances, social occasions, workplace meetings or not having access to toilet facilities, for example, can give rise to persistent and overwhelming anxiety for some people.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety results from the triggering of our fight/flight response, when the part of our brain whose job it is to protect us – the amygdala – senses a threat. As a client once pointed out, if someone has a gun to your head, some level of anxiety is appropriate. Our fight/flight response is a fundamental survival mechanism, and to that extent, the anxiety that goes along with it is necessary and helpful. So we wouldn’t want to get rid of it altogether.
The problem arises when we experience anxiety so often or so greatly that it disrupts normal life, arising in response to everyday events and situations that aren’t life-threatening; instead of being functional, it becomes dysfunctional. This is sometimes referred to as generalised anxiety disorder.
It can sometimes feel as if the world today sets us up for anxiety. As technology increases the pace of life further and faster all the time, our brains and bodies can struggle to keep up. 24hr rolling news alerts us to events and disasters around the world that are beyond our influence or control. Smartphones are our constant companions, competing for our attention even when we aren’t using them. Research has shown that the mere presence of your smartphone can reduce cognitive capacity, contributing to a state called ‘continual partial attention’. Advertisers compete for our cash by telling us we aren’t enough without their products. The availability of seemingly endless streams of TV channels, and on-demand movies and box sets are keeping us up later at night than is healthy. When it comes to distraction, the possibilities feel endless. This is sold to us as a good thing, but what if it is making us more anxious by contributing to what is called ‘FOMO’ - the fear of missing out?
In his brilliant book, “Notes on a Nervous Planet”, Matt Haig writes about his experience of anxiety as a “kind of overload”, and asks what happens when overload has become almost a way of life, fuelled by our modern world.
What can we do about anxiety?
The challenge is to simplify, disconnect, unplug, and come back to ourselves. We can do a lot to lower our general anxiety levels by reducing the amount of time we spend each day looking into a screen of one type or another... For example, checking social media can sometimes feel like the modern equivalent of looking out the window for a few moments’ distraction. However, gazing at the view can restore perspective, but scrolling on social media is likely to do the opposite.
We can take time to pause, breathe, and reflect, get off the exhausting merry-go-round of ‘beginning – middle – end – next’. We can create space between things….connect with nature. Studies have shown that regular time in or looking at nature has lots of mental and physical health benefits. Research also shows that in children, regular, direct contact with nature can increase self-esteem and resilience, and improve cognitive ability and creativity, flexibility and self-awareness. I bet it can do that for all of us.
We can remind ourselves of the time before smartphones and multiple gadgets and non-stop streaming, and focus on just one thing at a time again, and reap the rewards of concentrated attention and energy. We can go to bed earlier, so that we wake up naturally rather than needing an alarm (which nowadays means that many of us sleep with our phones by our beds). Our consumer culture tells us we might be missing out on all the fun, but we won’t be, and instead we might find there is so much to gain, through a reduction in anxiety and depression, and reconnection with ourselves.
Of course, some anxiety is personal, specific to us as an individual, and may be triggered by situations or events that remind us of trauma, often childhood trauma. There may also be underlying issues, and we may need the help of a professional counsellor to explore and understand what is going on, for us.
As a general rule, what we resist, persists, and so the first step towards change and healing is to accept where we are right now; acknowledge the anxiety, get curious about it – when and where does it arise, and what can you do differently, to reduce it. You, are in control! Some anxiety may be a necessary component of our fight/flight response, but persistent, debilitating, everyday anxiety is not something we have to live with.