People living in first-world, industrialized cultures are experiencing alarming rates of anxiety disorder. According to the National Institute of Health, approximately 40 million people per year in the US will succumb to this horrific malaise. These alarming numbers speak of an epidemic. Rather than simply acclimating to this malaise and medicating the symptoms of anxiety—which may have problematic if not damaging effects—we should first be asking why this avalanche of distress is occurring and, second, how we can overcome the underlying causes of anxiety. This article will fundamentally address the first question. In my next post, we’ll explore how we can overcome this malaise as I share some of the therapeutic methods that I employ to that end.
When a dysfunction such as anxiety—or depression, for that matter—becomes so commonplace, we must turn to our culture, which is our aggregate way of living, and examine how and why it’s producing such distress. Those suffering from anxiety are often simply mirroring an overwrought, anxiety-laden way of living. Turning the victim into the problem makes no sense at all. Such a preponderance of people suffering in this way must be a reflection of the effects of enduring an incongruous, if not insane, way of living, fostered by our prevailing worldview. In effect, the way that we are living produces this tragic result.
It is essential to address the underlying causes and not simply suppress the symptoms. The difficulty is that in our quick fix mentality, we believe that if we can quiet the symptoms, all is well. This may benefit the pharmaceutical-psychiatry industry, but not those so afflicted. We must come to see anxiety not as the enemy but as an expression of our struggle in adapting to a way of living that actually imperils us. From this vantage, anxiety is paradoxically sensible as we are reacting to conditions that are toxic. The anxiety can be seem similarly to a fever, which is simply a call to attention that all is not well. So the irony is that by medicating our symptoms away, we ensure continued suffering, for the struggle is never resolved toward a breakthrough; it is merely placated.
Moving Through Anxiety
On the more personal level, the individual taking anti-anxiety medication becomes convinced that they don’t have the resources to deal with their distress, as they become addicted to the temporary relief that the pill provides. In both cases—for the culture as a whole and for the afflicted individual—by trying to contain anxiety, we block our actualization. We must move through anxiety, not defend against it. It should be a harbinger of necessary change and growth, not an external evil to be medicated.
The worldview to which I previously referred was founded by the thinking of Isaac Newton and Renee Descartes in the 17th century. Their philosophies and insights set in motion our dependence upon analysis and measurement, which taught us that by drilling down to the source, so to speak, we could control and master our lives and our environment. Rational and analytical thinking became the foundation of this worldview. This led to many remarkable advances with regard to modernization of society. Their teaching also had us seek, if not worship, predictability and certainty, which while fruitful in moderation, became pathological in the extreme. It is from this over reliance upon analytical and rational thinking that the epidemic of anxiety became inevitable. Analyzing should be a tool in our mind’s toolbox, but when it’s the only one we reach for, we suffer tragic consequences. Our mandate to subject human experience and emotions solely to rational and analytical judgment in and of itself excoriates us.
This imperative, which relentlessly seeks predictability and certainty, has caused us to lose our way. Its unintended consequence has been anxiety, as our minds are tethered to assuring proper outcomes as we seek to avoid “mistakes.” This indoctrination has resulted in excessive worrying, with an ensuing loss of wonder, awe, and imagination that are essential to a balanced and harmonious life. We have lost much of what it means to be human. The result is an existential crisis from which anxiety surfaces.
People inclined toward anxiety lose themselves to the measuring tendency of their thoughts, all the while further separating themselves from a coherent flow of life. The compulsion to compare and measure—so prevalent in the competitive, individualistic culture in which we live—leads to a further estrangement from others. People who suffer with anxiety often become engulfed in their thoughts’ relentless compulsion, which imprisons them with a flood of despair.
Slicing and Dicing Reality
A relentless questioning over decision-making—should I do this or do that—is all designed to protect against making wrong choices, and is consistent with what we call anxiety. It is also emblematic of correlated self-esteem issues as the relentless self-examining destroys any healthy sense of self. Such individuals become captive to their own thoughts, inducing horrific anxiety, as they miss the very flow of life. At the extreme it causes our thoughts to fragment as we slice and dice our life experience into increasingly maddening bits and the addictive nature of anxiety sets in.
When I have the occasion to go to a baseball game, I’ve noticed that some fans still keep a scorecard, a bygone remnant of my youth. They notate every play of the game, their eyes cast down at the scorecard, removed from the flow of the game. The same is true with anxiety as it removes us from the joy of being present. If your inner monologue is self-measuring and overly critical, you’re missing the flow of your life.
In addition to society’s contribution to anxiety, there are of course particular personal and biographical considerations as well that contribute to one’s relationships with anxiety, which we’ll consider in the next article. I will also share in detail some methods that many of my clients have found helpful in transcending their struggle as they learn to break free from this torrent of fearful thinking.
To learn about Mel’s upcoming, live videoconference – Overcoming Anxiety – click here.