The American Psychiatric Association (APA) reported last year that Americans were getting more anxious. The APA poll found that, compared to the previous year, 39 percent of people feel more anxious, 39 percent feel equally anxious, and the rest feel less anxious. Anxiety disorders are the most common group of psychological disorders, with about 19 percent of the U.S. population suffering from an anxiety disorder each year, and 31 percent suffering from an anxiety disorder during their lifetimes. The numbers are even higher for women and millennials.
Why is anxiety on the rise? One of the well-studied, and yet counterintuitive, explanations is that we have become a nation of avoiders. We avoid discomfort of any kind, we avoid negative emotions, and we avoid pain. The trouble with this approach is that pain, fear, sadness, and other unpleasant feelings are ubiquitous; they are an inevitable part of normal human experience. And when we consciously and unconsciously try to avoid, escape, or minimize these normal human emotions, they might go away for a bit, but they always come back with a vengeance.
When you feel a little anxious about a coming presentation, you might get a drink, procrastinate, binge-watch yet another Netflix series, ask for reassurance from a friend, or take a Xanax. If you feel like anxiety is getting too overwhelming, you might even call in sick and postpone the presentation. While these strategies will probably make you feel better in the short term, the likelihood increases that you will experience even higher anxiety the next time you face public speaking. The continuous avoidance leads to higher and higher anxiety, eventually resulting in a full-blown anxiety problem or disorder.
A similar process happens when we fear to discuss a difficult topic with a romantic partner. Instead of speaking up, we keep finding reasons not to bring it up. We might also distract ourselves from the building anxiety by going down the Facebook, Twitter, or Amazon rabbit hole, snacking on junk food, or obsessively searching the Internet for “how to have hard conversations.” We avoid and delay until the initial discomfort snowballs into a huge problem causing us extreme anxiety. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) shows us how to recognize and change these avoidance patterns by learning to accept negative emotions and by doing what matters in life.
There are things you can do regularly to become better at “feeling fear and doing it anyway.” Use them to build your “courage muscle,” and thus prevent anxiety from ruling (or ruining) your life:
1. Do one thing each day for no other reason than you would rather not.
This is advice that William James, one of the founders of American psychology, gave in his 1890 book Habit. It is still applicable more than 100 years later. The one thing could be as small as showering with cold(er) water, parking further from a store entrance so you have to walk further in the rain, or tolerating your hunger for 15 minutes longer than usual before eating.
2. Let your partner or child do something that makes you uncomfortable. Or eat alone at a sit-down restaurant and see a movie by yourself.
Maybe your husband wants to take your young kids to the pool by himself, or your girlfriend occasionally likes to dance with other men in a group of friends. Or your teenager is planning on taking an Uber by herself for the first time. Beyond common safety measures, notice your urge to protest, argue, or forbid, stemming from your anxiety and worry. And then let the urges go. You will not only feel less anxious in the long run, but you likely will improve your relationships and foster resilience in your kids.
If the thought of eating alone in a restaurant (McDonalds and Chipotle don’t count) makes you nervous, you are not alone. Most people would feel at least somewhat uncomfortable being alone in public spaces like restaurants, movie theaters, and opera halls. After all, the majority of patrons in these places come with at least one other person. What would happen if you did go alone the next time you have a chance? After you get over your initial discomfort, you will be positively surprised.
3. Don’t avoid reminders of universal mortality.
One of the greatest psychologists of all time, Rollo May, talked about existential anxiety—a fear of death that all humans have to live with. He emphasized that what determines whether we develop problematic anxiety is how we deal with the fact that we will all cease to exist (at least in the same form as we do when we are alive). If we “crumble” under the weight of the fear of death and become paralyzed by it, we are likely to develop anxiety disorders. If we accept the fear and get motivated to live each day like it is our last, we are going to flourish.
Remind yourself that we only have limited time on this Earth, so there is no time to waste. Don’t avoid funerals, memorials, cemeteries, reading obituaries, or watching movies that deal with death. As Randi Pausch wrote in his bestselling book The Last Lecture, don’t wait until you are diagnosed with a terminal illness to “seize the day.”
4. When something bothers you in a relationship, say so as soon as possible.
We generally aren’t attracted to our psychological “twins,” so the people we date and marry are bound to be different from us. That is normal. It is also normal to have different opinions on an array of topics, as well as different needs, preferences, and temperament. A hallmark of a good relationship is not an absence of discussions or disagreements, it is how you handle them. So speak up, even if it makes you uncomfortable. The sooner you voice something that concerns you, annoys you, or hurts you, the higher the chances that you can discuss it in a constructive way—and the lower the chances that your anxiety will skyrocket.
5. Try new things, even if it means going beyond your comfort zone.
Some people are naturally more open to trying new foods, traveling to new places, or experimenting with new activities. For others, those might bring up a lot of apprehension and fear. Wherever you fall on this spectrum, you will likely feel some anxiety as you look up for the first time at a very steep trail you are hiking or prepare yourself to eat fried crickets at a new Oaxacan restaurant. Even taking a different route to work can be scary. Humans dislike uncertainty and the unknown, and we try to avoid it as much as possible. And, yet, it is only by accepting the fear of uncertainty and pushing ourselves gently beyond our comfort zone that we come out the other side with less long-term anxiety. By embracing the discomfort that comes with new experiences, we open up a path toward a more vital, rich, and meaningful life.
6. Stop “being busy” for a moment and see what comes up.
You don’t have to be a workaholic to recognize that sometimes we keep ourselves very busy so we don’t have to deal with our thoughts and feelings. We fear that if we stop the perpetual motion, moving from one “to-do” thing to another, we will be left with our minds full of discomfort. This fear is an old one, but the Internet has certainly made it infinitely easier to never be still and unoccupied. In the morning line for coffee, we pull out our phones. We reflexively reach out for the iPad as soon as we sit on a couch after work. We fall asleep with the TV on in the background. This persistent distraction and avoidance of negative emotions are the breeding ground for anxiety problems.
In her new book, Jenny Odell tries to teach us “how to do nothing.” At least for a bit. By allowing emotions, images, memories, and physical sensations to show up during these still moments, we can slowly learn to accept them without judgment. Maybe observing the mind and body is not as scary as it seems. And maybe we can even learn something useful about ourselves.
7. Spend time in nature, including exercising outside.
In the contemporary Western world, we live more separated from nature than any other civilization in human history. The necessary contact with nature, which was common throughout history, protected humans from problematic anxiety in many ways. Being in nature involved the following factors, all of which have been shown to lower anxiety in the long run: a) physical exercise like foraging, exploring, working in the fields, or chopping wood; b) sunlight; c) the opportunity to deal with uncertainty; and d) a source of transcendence, allowing us to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.
These days, we may fear feeling uncomfortable in nature. There might be bugs, rough terrain, unpredictable weather, dangerous animals, too much sun or too little sun, muddy ground, etc. We also might fear being too far from “civilization,” in case we need help. Or a cold beer. It is time to face fear head-on and step into nature. For some, it will mean going to the nearby park for the first time in ages. For others, it will include that backpacking trip in the Rockies that has always been on a bucket list. However small or big the steps, they will break the avoidance and get us in touch with sources of health and resilience.
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