Ongoing problems with co-workers? Constant arguments with family members at home? Few friends because most people you meet are simply inferior, unintelligent idiots, who are usually to blame for the stressors in your life?
All the world seems full of jerks, and they are in your face. To quote Dark Helmet from the movie Spaceballs, “I am surrounded by a-holes.”
Ever consider the real problem may be you?
In fact, psychologists and other scientists agree that stress and anxiety are primary drivers of a person’s disordered mood and distorted sense of reality. Anxiety can give its sufferers low self-esteem and make them feel out of control in life, unhappy, dejected, emotionally erratic (fire up that anger), restricted, and unable to manage pressure – and oftentimes patients do not realize anything is wrong.
In a study published in November 2018 in Neurology, Harvard researchers reported finding that high levels of cortisol, the hormone released in the body when a person is exposed to chronic stress, impairs memory and lowers brain volume. Their findings are in line with 2013 research, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, indicating that anxiety may actually promote an intertwining of what normally are separate circuits of the brain. In this case, the scientists determined that anxiety linked emotion with smell. Neutral smells became maliferous to those placed under stress.
So, how does mood change perception of reality – and of others?
An earlier Belgian study suggests that mood affects how one processes information about the surrounding environment. A “happy person” is able to dwell on positive stimuli and direct attention both outwardly and internally. Someone in a dour mindset eschews the outward in order to concentrate inwardly, assigning more value to his or her own inclinations and feelings.
Experts at the Mayo Clinic refer to patients with mood disorders as individuals in an emotional state that is either distorted or, at the very least, “inconsistent with [one’s] circumstances” and inhibitive of the ability to function normally. The Association for Psychological Science, in a 2018-published study, states that “what a person consciously sees in the moment is a mental representation of the real world, not a direct reflection of it… We perceive others differently depending on how we feel.”
Perhaps, the words of Chilean author Roberto Bolan֮o best describe the issue: “People see what they want to see and what they want to see never has anything to do with the truth.”
Blame It All on COVID-19?
Perhaps, we truly are experiencing a rise in the level of what some describe as “jerkitude” globally, and we can thank the COVID-19 virus in part for that, according to a Harris poll undertaken between April 24 and May 4, 2020 on behalf of the American Psychological Association.
The poll found that the pandemic has, in particular, increased the stress levels of parents concerning the education of their children, basic needs, and social isolation (cancellation of major family events like graduation ceremonies and weddings, for example). Seventy percent of respondents expressed anxiety about jobs and finances; others stressed about the lack of governmental leadership in finding solutions. For those already prone to anxiety, fears, and uncertainties, the pandemic has only exacerbated their problems. How many times on the news have we seen angry, public confrontations just about mask-wearing? People are on edge.
Yet, COVID is just a portion of the story. A 2020 report on anxietycentre.com quotes the National Institute of Mental Health as indicating that anxiety disorders affect more than 18 percent of American adults between the ages of 18 and 54. However, truer numbers actually may be much higher – as many as 30 percent in this age group – because patients often fail to seek help, are misdiagnosed, or simply do not even know they have the problem – “it’s got to be them, not me.” Some scientists even suggest that as many as a third to a half of all adults in the United States will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives.
Are You the Problem?
Self-reflection is never easy. The internet, of course, is replete with lay advice about how to determine whether you – not the people around you – are the true problem. “8 Signs You’re Toxic” tops one article, which suggests that you may need help if your life is the reflection of a daily drama or sitcom. However, the best first step to psychological health may be to take a test or two or three. Answer a few basic questions on the professional stress and anxiety disorder questionnaires (PHQ-9 and GAD-7), which are readily available online, and the mood disorder survey (MDQ).
If you score high on any of these tests – a high score is not what you want – then consider these tips:
- Change how you think about yourself. If you consistently self-criticize and see yourself in a negative light, then that becomes your reality. It does not have to be so. Reflect on your strengths and on the power that you have to improve and build on your weaknesses. Be determined to feel good, to laugh, to practice the art of appreciation and enjoy who you are.
- Know yourself better. Track your anxiety and stress levels – and your ability to fall asleep and remain asleep – when you receive disconcerting personal information (your stocks are down, for example) or you hear news about serious national or global events that could impact you. Also, keep count of your “blow-ups” or arguments in which you engage.
- Ask three close friends or family members to evaluate your disposition, truthfully. Are you acting normally or oftentimes a “pain in the tail.”
- Stop being judgmental. View others in the same positive ways that you are trying to see yourself. Create a new reality. People are not generally unfeeling, unfriendly, or “out to get you.” They are trying to get through life as successfully as you are. They need your support just as you need theirs. Learn to trust.
- Reconstruct your perception of the world. It is not as narrow, scary, and dark as you make it. Many beautiful and positive things are happening around you if only you divert your attention outwardly and away from your ego.
- Live now — in the present. Although you can prepare and plan, you cannot adequately predict or prevent what will happen in the future. And stop worrying about what happened yesterday, last month, or 10 years ago. Do not relive your mistakes. Move on and resolve to do better – to be better. Life is a gift. Accept it as such.
- Spend more time outdoors. Research has demonstrated that ecotherapy, time spent in nature, reduces anxiety and stress.
- Learn more about meditation and other approaches to reducing stress and anxiety.
- Finally, if all else fails, contact a psychologist or behavior specialist for help. You may find that those a-holes who have been surrounding you all this time suddenly disappear.