Stress

Why Are We So Anxious and What Can We Do About It?

A psychologist reveals three key strategies for dealing with stress and anxiety.

Posted Dec 19, 2019

If you’re feeling anxious and stressed, you’re not alone. The American Psychological Association reports that most Americans are suffering from moderate to high stress and that 75 percent of us have experienced at least one symptom of stress in the past month. Anxious, exhausted, and worried about everything from mass shootings and climate change to our jobs, finances, health care, and political future—too many of us no longer feel safe (APA 2011, 2017, 2019).

To understand our current stress epidemic, I interviewed Seattle psychologist Meg Van Deusen, author of the new book, Stressed in the U.S.

Meg Van Deusen, used with permission
Source: Meg Van Deusen, used with permission

After studying stress for years, examining the research and working with her clients, Van Deusen realized that “Stress is starting to change.” While people have typically been stressed by money and work, “now people are worried about available healthcare, our nation’s future, and our future in general.”

She says that our deep sense of insecurity began with the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center “in that we no longer felt safe on our own soil.” Then it continued to rise with the invention of the iPhone, “a technology designed to connect us to one another, but, instead, has created barriers to relationship connection.”

Most of all, she said, “We're missing opportunities to connect with each other in ways that promote secure attachment, that promote happiness and well-being and that actually reduce stress.”

What does attachment have to do with this, I wondered. Referring to the work of British psychoanalyst John Bowlby (1988), Van Deusen explained that attachment is “the psychological bond between two people over time. When this bond is consistent and caring, we feel safe and secure.”

“Secure attachment begins when we are babies and our caregivers are consistent, reassuring, and dependable—when we feel seen and understood by the other person,” she said. Insecure attachment happens when caregivers are “neglectful and unavailable” or inconsistent, “highly critical in one moment and loving in the next, so the infant’s not really sure what to expect.”

Why is attachment is so important? She explained, “The hypothalamic-pituitary axis (HPA), which is the axis in the body that regulates stress, is present at birth. And research has found that the quality of infant care affects how well that HPA will work later in life. So the HPA is really important to emotional regulation, to being able to develop empathy. It's key in brain development. The attachment relationship between the primary caregiver and the infant literally helps the brain grow.” Without secure attachment, we can become chronically anxious, insecure, unable to trust, and particularly susceptible to stress.

Dr. Van Deusen sees our current stress epidemic as a reflection of our insecure attachment to our country. She referred to a pioneering study that validates how people develop attachments to their nations (Marshall & Ferenczi, 2013). Van Deusen points out that the researchers found that people with secure attachments to their nation had a greater sense of well-being.

 Meg Van Deusen, used with permission
Source: Meg Van Deusen, used with permission

A complex combination of factors in the United States has made us feel increasingly insecure from the 2001 terrorist attacks to mass shootings. Places where we used to feel safe—community centers, houses of worship, shopping malls, movie theaters, and schools—no longer feel safe. These factors, along with the threat of global warming and the ever-present, addictive nature of technology, all contribute and make us feel we are not safe in our own country.

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At the same time, instead of close personal relationships that can strengthen our emotional security, we have what Van Deusen calls “the estranging factor” of social media. She explained, “If people are getting their sense of self-worth, from what they're seeing on social media, we've got a problem because the majority of what is posted is not a reflection of reality. People put their best selves forward, advertise all of the fabulous things they might be doing, and it makes other people feel inadequate. I see it in my practice all the time.”

That’s the bad news. But the good news is that we can do something about it. We can begin reversing this unhealthy situation to heal our lives both individually and collectively. Dr. Van Deusen offers 12 powerful stress relief strategies in her book. Three key strategies are mindfulness, setting boundaries around technology, and reconnecting with nature.

1. Mindfulness

Mindfulness, she says, is “non-judgmental, compassionate awareness in the present moment.” It’s not only a meditative practice but a way of life that research has shown relieves stress, anxiety, chronic pain, and a wide variety of illnesses (Kabat-Zinn, 1982; 2003; 2011). Van Deusen has found a powerful connection between mindfulness and attunement between the caregiver and child, the underlying concept of secure attachment. Mindfulness, she explains, “creates a sense of well-being, a sense of confidence, a sense of being able to accept ourselves, increasing awareness of what’s going on with ourselves emotionally, so we know how to respond more proactively instead of reactively to situations.” She works with many of her clients to help them cultivate a personal mindfulness practice.

2. Setting Boundaries Around Technology

“People are looking down more than they are looking at one another these days,” she says. All around us are couples in restaurants, people in stores, people crossing the streets even (dangerously) driving while looking at their phones. She says that “the smartphone rings or dings and while when it does, it actually increases a person's stress response. It also increases dopamine,” the reward response. Aware of “the addictive quality of the smartphone,” she helps her clients come up with technology boundaries that work for them—putting their phones away for several hours of the day or taking social media or news apps off their phones so they aren’t “endlessly distracted.” 

3. Reconnecting with Nature

Van Deusen explains how “being connected to nature increases the positive emotion of awe which increases our sense of well-being and decreases cortisol in the body,” relieving stress. She pointed to research showing that it “also quiets the default mode network, which is that part of the brain that tends to negatively ruminate about all the things that are going wrong in our lives. It engages the prefrontal cortex in the same way that they're finding mindfulness meditation does.” (See Keltner & Haidt, 2003; Shiota, Keltner, & Mossman, 2007.)

One of Dr. Van Deusen’s clients was a chronically anxious woman, “struggling with the stress of a serious health issue, relationship conflict, and worry about the political divide.” So they “talked a lot about getting out into nature, just taking a walk, just noticing the trees or the sky or the water and being in a mindful, present relationship with her natural surroundings.” The client took Dr. Van Deusen’s advice and reported to Van Deusen that she felt “less alone, more held by the earth, more grounded, more connected.” She was grateful that her stress was relieved and that she had found this healing practice of connecting with nature, a practice validated by current research. (See Keltner & Haidt, 2003; Zhang, Piff, Iyer, Koleva, & Keltner, 2014.)

So if you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed, you could try these three steps to begin feeling more mindful and at peace: practicing mindfulness, setting boundaries around technology, and reconnecting with nature to cultivate a more secure attachment with yourself, your relationships, and your world.

This post is for informational purposes and should not substitute for psychotherapy with a qualified professional.

References

Bowlby, J. (1988). A secure base: Clinical applications of attachment theory. London, UK: Routledge.

Davidson, R. J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santorelli, S., Urbanowski, F., Harrington, A., Bonus, K., & Sheridan, J. F. (2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65, 564-570.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1982). An outpatient program in behavioral medicine for chronic pain patients based on the practice of mindfulness meditation: Theoretical considerations and preliminary results. General Hospital Psychiatry, 4, 33-47.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfulness-based interventions in context: Past, present, and future. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10, 144-156.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2011). Some reflections on the origins of MBSR, skillful means, and the trouble with maps. Contemporary Buddhism, 12, 281-306.

Keltner, D. & Haidt, J. (2003). Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 17, 297-314.

Marshall, T. V., & Ferenczi, N. (2013). Exploring attachment to the ‘homeland’ and its association with heritage culture identification. Plos One, 8(1). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0053872

Shiota, M. N., Keltner, D., & Mossman, A. (2007). The nature of awe: Elicitors, appraisals, and effects on self-concept. Cognition and Emotion, 21, 944-963.

Van Deusen, M. (2019). Stressed in the US: 12 tools to tackle anxiety, loneliness, tech addition, and more. Los Angeles, CA: Story Merchant Books.

Van Deusen, M. (2019, December 9). Personal communication. All quotes in this article are from this interview.

Zhang, J. W., Piff, P. K., Iyer, R., Koleva, S., & Keltner, D. (2014). An occasion for unselfing: Beautiful nature leads to prosociality. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 37, 61-72.