In a 2019 video produced for the Child Mind Institute that went viral, the actor and comedian Bill Hader discussed his lifelong struggles with anxiety. Hader said that anxiety “doesn’t really go away; you manage it. Instead of pushing away your anxiety – and I always imagined my anxiety as this little monster that would attack my face or pull at my ears – instead of pushing that thing away and trying to fight it, I would just go, ‘Hey, buddy,’ like it was a little monkey, and I’d [say], ‘Okay, sit on my shoulder. Let’s hang out.’
The debate over how to cope with anxiety disorders is the issue of the moment. Potential cures fuel social media feeds, news reports, and water-cooler conversations. Everyone, it seems, has tips: meditation, yoga, cognitive behavioural therapy, pills, visualisation.
It’s with good reason: anxiety is now the most common form of mental illness. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) estimates that anxiety disorders affect more than 19 per cent of the adult population each year. And a 2018 American Psychiatric Association public opinion poll found that 39 per cent of people surveyed reported increased anxiety over the previous year.
While we throw around the word “anxiety,” this collection of disorders is often improperly self-diagnosed. According to the NIMH, generalised anxiety disorder is not just fretting, embarrassment, nerves, or situational stress but rather the experience of excessive anxiety or worry about everyday life events that can prove debilitating. Some performance anxiety before a test or sleeplessness after a traumatic event is not anxiety; ongoing distress that gets in the way of enjoying life is.
“Anxiety is rooted in fear,” says Brianna Marshall, a marriage and family therapist in Las Vegas. When you’re anxious you may have the same fight-or-flight reactions our ancestors felt when encountering wild animals. Only we have that heart-racing, cold-sweat high alert at 3 a.m. not in service of self-preservation but because, say, we might have misspoken at a party.
Experts even say that some anxiety is healthy. We need fear to keep us safe and excitement to perform at our best in front of a crowd. But obsessive negative thoughts are the opposite of healthy. And two of the biggest sources of anxiety today are social media and the inhuman pace of the modern workplace.
“Anxiety has always been around,” says couples and family therapist Eli Karam, a professor at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. “But the triggers and causes are different now due to the rise of technology. People are plugged in at all times. Social media has contributed to a fear of missing out.” The tendency to “compare your insides to other people’s outsides,” as the mantra goes, often prompts self-flagellating rumination.
A 2017 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology also points to the Internet’s contribution to the increase in vicarious anxiety in response to the suffering of strangers, especially in people who are highly empathetic. “It used to be that you’d experience family members’ anxiety in the microcosm of your home,” says Akua K. Boateng, a psychotherapist who practices in Philadelphia. Now, she says, we’re not only empathising with the stress of a parent’s job loss or a child’s rough school year but also with distant experiences of mass shootings, natural disasters, and fires. “We need to scale back on that stimuli and also to educate ourselves to contextualise all the information we’re taking in.”
And yet many find the concept of scaling back in any area of life to be a challenge. In an effort to do it all and have it all, to make a living while caretaking and coping with the spiralling costs of housing, education and health care, many can barely catch their breath.
“So many people are working long hours or multiple jobs and are being asked to do more for less money,” says Marshall. “In the 1980s and before, we had something called work-life balance. You went to work from nine to five. You had an hour break for lunch. That was it. You didn’t have e-mails to respond to at home. No texting and phone calls all evening. We don’t have work-life balance anymore. We have work-life blending. People are eating lunch at their desks while on a conference call. People are stressed. We work so unbelievably hard. I meet very few people who want to work as much as they do.”
Marshall says that on a personal level, healing anxiety requires us to set boundaries like not seeking a promotion, taking a vacation, spending less time online, and ending toxic relationships. But, she adds, the real burden to fix work-induced anxiety should be on employers. “Managers and bosses should not keep asking for more from their employees. They should treat them like human beings, like actual people who have Saturday baseball games with their kids.”
Relentless schedules can also keep us isolated from supportive relationships that may provide a reality check to fears tied to health, age, or status. “Hearing shared stories about others in distress does create support, and we need that; it builds hope,” says Boateng. Other people, whether therapists or friends, can help combat irrational voices of anxiety.
“You can’t change the thinking until you change the doing,” Karam says. “People have their most anxious thoughts at night when they are trying to fall asleep; that monologue runs through their head. Get up, walk around.”
If you’re obsessively fearful about public speaking, he says, it can help to visualise the worst-case scenario and evaluate how terrible it could be. You can then look at any evidence you have: What happened the other times you spoke in public? Was it so awful? How can you practically avoid the worst-case scenario? In this case, you can prepare your talk and get feedback from others.
The flurry of studies and stories about anxiety may be overwhelming, but it’s getting people who need help where they belong – into therapy or rooms with other people who can help them counteract the negative voices in their heads. “Think about the most stuck you’ve ever felt,” says Karam. “It’s probably when you couldn’t put a voice to something. When people stay in their head, it makes them isolated, and that usually leads to catastrophising or making things even worse. Being able to talk about it is very important.”
From Harper's BAZAAR Arabia March 2020 Issue