Goodbye High Anxiety

Six paths to serenity in maddening times.

Posted Dec 31, 2018

Nothing describes modern humans as well as high anxiety. According to the WHO, high-income countries are more susceptible to anxiety, with the US having the highest rate of anxiety disorders in the world.Surely there is manufactured anxiety. Cultural institutions, social media and politicians propagate imaginary or grossly exaggerated threats. But then there is authentic or, let’s say, understandable anxiety, triggered by unprecedented challenges. If we want to have greater access to inner calm, we are well-advised to know about these challenges. It is then that we can say “No” to some of them or to the response we might otherwise generate. The decisions you make will have a profound effect on your happiness, that is your ability to be calm and present with reality “as is”. So, before you make up your mind about what you want to change inside or outside of yourself, let me bring to your attention the -- probably incomplete -- list of challenges we face in the modern world: 


It’s high time to worry about competition as we see on TV or our social circle the great successes of others. There are clear winners in society who seemingly pulled themselves up by their own boot strings. While upward mobility is progress, we have no longer to blame a rigid class system for our status. Alain de Botton named this anxiety fittingly “status anxiety”.Do not assume that you are immune against status anxiety. It is a biological response. Instead, it is wiser to observe yourself as you think of your “unlimited potential” and “go-getter” attitude. The sky’s the limit, but do you enjoy the endeavor of constant ascendance? What if you fall short? Is falling short always tantamount to failure? Do you have enough downtime during which you choose to content yourself? Shed light on your own competitive nature, some of which is healthy and some of which is unhealthy. As you become aware of the workings of your mind, troubling subtle feelings of inaptness tend to dissipate.


We are being bombarded practically everywhere. It is natural to turn our heads to changes in our environment. Not to be able to orient ourselves when something blinks or stands out in tone, color, pattern or verbally encoded messages is a sign of great dysfunction. Big business knows to take advantage of your natural tendencies. What is there to do but to deliberately turn your back to stimulation? While insulating yourself from uncomfortable truths is not the answer, seeking regular refuge from the noise of others is essential to avoiding triggers of anxiety. Get off the grid! 


Of course, personal problems have always existed. Ancient people were traumatized, got sick, and endured many forms of deprivation. But it is only now that we are chronically left alone with our troubles. Loneliness is a killer, about which I have already extensively written. Explore your loneliness and see over what aspect you have power. Making but small changes in your social life can dramatically reduce anxiety. You might hug yourself to inner calm, share yourself with a caring, non-judgmental person or offer support to others in need. Without embodiment, relationships miss the needed warmth to help solve or accept personal problems. Therefore, whatever you do, make it real in these virtual times, and engage with all your senses as you reach out.


We all know that sitting endlessly in concrete or metallic boxes is turning us into bundles of stress. If only action would follow watching an exciting movie or hearing about horrible news. But here we are, bombarded with impressions without expressing any of them. Leave your home or, at least, run on a treadmill. Let your body make sense of the input it receives. Meanwhile, subject yourself to the healing power of nature. There is no better therapist than the blue ocean or the green forest. Seek motion under the sky and get out of your head.


It is good to understand scientifically the world in which we partake. However, as we reduce ourselves to analysis, the universe is losing its wonder. Many people have difficulties finding meaning in the dissected world. The universe has not changed, but the human response to it has. Can we experience awe when we no longer have eyes for the interconnected whole? Do not give yourself up to pinpointing words and the part of your mind that sorts out the world. There is no silence in analysis. Let yourself be quiet with the universe. Darken your room and light up a candle. Stare and breathe with what you see. Your anxiety lessens as you connect with your own, already existing inner calm. 


Some people claim that we are more anxious because we have the time for it. Anxiety would be the result of unprecedented introspection. But why do introspective US Americans experience more anxiety than introspective Europeans? While materialism is spreading all over the world, prioritizing shamelessly “having” over “being” is most rampant in the New World. We want to become millionaires more than anything. When you ask young students what they like to be when they are grown-up, many answer plainly, “Rich”. Being overly fixated on material consumption reduces our focus on food for the soul, which would buffer against anxiety. What we need more than anything is the courage and dedication to care about higher causes, such as goodness, excellence, and the reduction of suffering in the world. As we dare to care other than about possessions, the anxiety over “having” or “not having” will dissipate. This is a step that everybody must take again and again as temptations are ubiquitous. Keep in mind that serenity comes from detaching from form and mental formations.

Choose wisely the one area in which a change is most needed. Above all, make space for the light inherent in you. It's not only good for you. The world needs it.


1)    Anxiety in the West: Is it on the rise? Tim Newman:

2)    Alan de Botton (2005). Status Anxiety. Vintage Publishing.