America the Anxious

Kristin VaughnAnxiety

In the past few years, I have seen a big increase in the number of patients who are seeking help for anxiety. The most common complaints include excessive worrying, panic attacks, difficulty sleeping, and feeling overwhelmed. With so many folks coming in with such similar issues, I started to sound like a broken record, repeating explanations about why we feel anxious and what to do about it.

As I did some research, and heard from more people, it became clear to me that this was no fluke. Indeed, our country is currently experiencing an epidemic of anxiety. While depression is still a major presenting problem in the therapy office, anxiety disorders have pulled ahead as the most frequent mental health diagnoses in the U.S.. Over 40 million adults report significant anxiety symptoms. An overwhelming 18% of Americans will experience an anxiety disorder in a given year, and we spend over 42 billion dollars each year on anxiety treatment.

It’s also true that Americans have a higher rate of anxiety (and depression) than any other country. One reason for this is our focus on achievement and success. While America is also great because of this, the flip side of the coin comes with more stress and pressure. Another reason why we are leading in these problems is that other countries seem to be better at taking vacations, and balancing hard work with extended downtime.

I’d like to highlight that anxiety is a very common experience for humans. I find it important to help anxiety sufferers understand this because people often feel worse when they think that they are somehow flawed for having anxiety symptoms. One of the most significant contributors to anxiety is our own reaction to it. Many people respond by saying something like, “What the heck is wrong with me, I am such an idiot for feeling this way!”. Instead, it helps to say something like, “Yeah, I struggle with anxiety, but life is hard, and many others struggle as well”.

It’s not really our fault for having anxiety, our brains are set up for worrying and being anxious. The “fight or flight” system in our brain is prepared to respond to threats, but we also have the part of our brain that is geared towards thinking and imagining. While it is good to think and plan, our ability to do so can cause the danger detector in our brains to be overactive. We imagine and think about vast possibilities of what could go wrong, and our thinking brains are great at reviewing these possibilities over and over again. As we do this, our bodies respond as though there is a real threat. This leads to tension, high blood pressure, stomach issues, and other stress-related medical problems.

This dynamic in our brains has been around since we have. But our current world leaves us with unique challenges that do not help when it comes to anxiety. We have access to constant stimulation and information at the tip of our fingers. As technology advances, we are faced with more choices of how to distract ourselves, and we have few opportunities for boredom. This is not ultimately beneficial for mental health, as we don’t learn to just sit and be still. We also don’t learn to be with what we are feeling.

While technology has many benefits, there are also many reasons why it can be linked to the current anxiety epidemic. For one, social media is the source of a barrage of news, especially of the negative variety. A wave of panic and worry can quickly spread and “go viral”. Social media is also an enormous and ever-present trigger for what psychologists call “social comparison”. We compare ourselves to others and we often come up short. We then feel pressure to keep up with others, or we worry and ruminate about what we are lacking in our lives.

Sadly, the recent rise in anxiety is most prevalent among teenagers. We can see that the pressure to keep up a social media identity can be overwhelming. While teens are frequently in contact with peers via technology, their ability to connect with others face-to-face is diminishing. We desperately need real human connection and social skills to serve as a support amidst the pressures of life.

While I understand that reading such information can be disconcerting, I didn’t write this to make you feel more anxious. I am writing about this topic because I wanted to communicate two important things.

1. Anxiety in today’s culture makes sense, and if you suffer from it, you are not alone! You are not messed up or weak for feeling this way.

2. There are some basic steps that you can take to address your
anxiety struggles.

The anxiety epidemic has motivated me to launch some online programs in the coming months. My first program will address panic attacks, but I will also have a programs for other anxiety problems. The programs will provide education as well as techniques and daily practices to help you transform your relationship with anxiety.

For now, try spending time away from your phone or other devices. Instead of looking at your phone before bed, try reading a book, doing some light yoga, or perhaps a relaxation or breathing exercise. Notice when you get caught up in worry and turn your attention to things that are soothing. Listening to sounds in nature, closing your eyes and following your breath, and taking a gentle walk outside can all serve as elixirs for anxiety.

Please stay tuned for more anxiety education, as well as tools to help you get out of the anxiety trap and moving toward the things that are most important to you.