The ongoing pandemic has been a source of enormous stress and anxiety for all of us. But anxiety was on the rise long before any of us had heard of COVID-19. Diagnoses like generalized anxiety disorder were increasingly common, especially among younger people, as were depression and suicide.
The most recent poll by the American Psychological Association found the average person believes they experience an unhealthy level of stress. My own practice reflects these trends, as stress and anxiety are the leading issues for which people come to me for help. (For help with managing stress and anxiety, see this free guide.)
What is behind these trends toward greater anxiety and stress? I recently spoke with psychologists Anthony Rao and Paul Napper, who explore these issues in their book, The Power of Agency. They noted that our lives have changed profoundly and our biology is struggling to keep up.
“Humans haven’t evolved much genetically over the last 200 years,” said Napper, “but if you think about how people lived 200 years ago versus how we live today, it’s really shocking.” As a result, there’s a stark mismatch between how we were designed and what’s demanded of us. “There’s a struggle to adapt to such a different reality,” Napper said.
Napper and Rao identified the following eight factors that are contributing to a “constant buzz of anxiety” and the feeling that we’re not doing enough:
1. Loss of Control
Overwhelming demands have led many of us to "experience a breakdown in feeling a sense of control over our lives,” said Napper. “I’m hearing more frequent complaints about feeling overwhelmed even among high-functioning business leaders, who are struggling to manage themselves and make good quality decisions.”
Rao echoed those observations among the kids he sees in his clinic. “More and more over the years they just seem kind of frozen,” he said. “And it seems to be a sense of overwhelm—these moments when young people get disconnected from their critical thinking and feel incredibly helpless.”
Napper and Rao attribute these feelings of helplessness and being overwhelmed to a loss of agency. As they state in their book, “Lack of agency often involves experiencing considerable doubt about your proper place in the world. People describe a sense of going through the motions without a true direction or confidence in their future.”
2. Digital Deluge
Technological innovations have completely shifted our daily experience. “There’s a stunning amount of messaging coming at us on an average day,” said Napper, “and we’re constantly consuming digital information.” Our minds weren’t made to process a continuous stream of input. “It’s actually cognitively overwhelming,” Napper said, “and people are confused.”
He also noted that we’re being subtly manipulated by our digital devices in ways we’re not aware of. “People message us constantly to try to get us to do things and influence us, whether it’s to buy something or vote in a particular way,” he said.
We’re even more susceptible to these messaging effects when we’re constantly glued to our screens. “The digital devices we have in front of us every day have been engineered to keep us on them as much as possible,” Rao noted. “We’re so used to holding them and looking at them and working on them and finding each other on them, that if you have a moment disconnected from them, the brain may be signaling very strongly to go reach for it.”
I can relate to that experience, where any moment of downtime can immediately be filled by digital distraction. A major cost, Rao said, is never being able to “cleanse your mental palette. People are just reflexively reaching, unconsciously, for their devices.”
The effects of social media are most pronounced for young people, especially once they enter middle school. “Intense and often toxic social comparisons are filling their minds,” said Rao. “They’re telling themselves things like, ‘I can’t keep enough, I’m not enough, I’ve got to do better, everyone else seems so much better off, happier, better looking than I am.” These forces likely play a role in the rising incidence of anxiety and depression among youths.
3. Less Human Contact
Digital connection is taking the place of actual human connection (even before the pandemic-related social distancing). “Much of our human contact is now filtered through various forms of media,” said Napper—social media, video conferencing, email. While you may not be aware of it, your mind and spirit crave three-dimensional interactions with other people.
4. Sedentary Lifestyle
We’re also moving less than ever, which hurts us not only physically but mentally and emotionally. Consistent movement is one of the most effective ways to lower stress and anxiety, and it also helps with sleep and mood. But we often spend entire days sitting, thanks in large part to technology. “When people are on digital devices, they tend to be sedentary,” said Napper.
5. Less Outdoor Time
“The other big issue is less outdoor time,” said Napper, since being on our phones usually means we’re cooped up inside. As a result, we miss out on the benefits of the great outdoors. (See Why Are Gardens So Good for the Soul?)
6. No Escape from Work
“There’s no real division” between work and the rest of life, said Napper. “People used to go to work from nine to five and then have the rest of their time off to focus on other things. Now they’re thinking about work pretty much all the time—weekends, evenings. They’re working 24/7.”
7. Economic Anxiety
Changes in the economy have led to greater uncertainty about our financial future—well before the massive slowdown related to the coronavirus pandemic. “The economy has changed dramatically over the last 30 years,” said Napper, “with jobs disappearing and new jobs showing up in new fields.”
8. Productivity Obsession
Many of these factors have led to an “obsession with productivity,” according to Napper and Rao. Since we can work all the time, we feel like we should work all the time—especially when our work productivity may be tracked with “fine-tuned metrics,” said Napper. And the more we stay on the treadmill of constant work, the less we’re able to ask ourselves if the way we’re living is serving us.
It’s hard to step out of this mode when busyness is seen as the new normal. “If I’m trying to get on top of my life and adapt to this set of conditions that surround me, and I’m looking to my right and my left to see what other people are doing, I’ll see they're all kind of driving themselves crazy doing tons of things,” said Napper. Seeing what others are doing reinforces our belief that we can never take a break.
This obsession with productivity is even infecting school-aged kids. “Children are working harder and harder, and they have less and less free time,” said Rao. “The demands on them start very early—to produce and to get on a track and be measured. I’ve watched that push its way down to younger and younger ages, and now even first and second graders have caught this.”
How to Help Yourself
There’s no quick fix for this complex mix of forces that are “contributing to people feeling overwhelmed and stressed out,” say Napper and Rao. “People are trying to make their lives better, but there’s no template—we haven’t done this before.”
But if you’re feeling stress and anxiety, there are simple ways to start reclaiming agency in your life. Consider doing one or two of the following, starting today:
- Reduce your screen time. Remove time-sucking social media apps from your phone, for example, and designate screen-free zones like mealtime and the bedroom.
- Move more. Stand up and walk around for a couple of minutes once or twice an hour. Even a little bit of movement is better than being completely sedentary for hours on end.
- Maximize outdoor time. Being in nature tends to calm the nervous system. Make it a goal to be outside as much as possible today. Find any excuse to step outside, even for a few seconds. Go for a short walk. Open the mail outside. Dine al fresco. Take in your surroundings—the sky, the light, the plants, and birds. Feel your spirit connect with the natural world. (Adapted from The CBT Deck for Anxiety, Rumination, & Worry.)
- Give yourself a break. Constant productivity doesn’t end up being very productive, as your energy and enthusiasm drop. Set aside work-free times and focus on other things, like loved ones and favorite hobbies.
- Choose analog connection over digital. Redirect time you were spending on screens to actual human interaction—hanging out with your kids, taking a walk with a friend, sharing a cup of tea with your partner.
These kinds of small actions can have a big impact over time. As you find more mental space and clarity, you'll be in a better position to design your life in a way that supports your well-being.
The full conversation with Paul Napper and Anthony Rao is available here.
Facebook/LinkedIn image: kittirat roekburi/Shutterstock
American Psychological Association (2019). Stress in America: Stress and Current Events. Stress in America™ Survey
Duffy, M. E., Twenge, J. M., & Joiner, T. E. (2019). Trends in mood and anxiety symptoms and suicide-related outcomes among US undergraduates, 2007–2018: Evidence from two national surveys. Journal of Adolescent Health, 65, 590-598.