09/11/2011 02:42 am ET | Updated Nov 10, 2011

A Decade After, Facing Our Collective Anxiety

As we progress deeper into the new millennium, and since the terrorist attacks of 9/11 a decade ago, we have seen more traumatic events unfold than ever before.

Think about it. In the 10 years since 9/11, we have been unremittingly slammed with persistent and often overwhelming stressors that cause a malaise of chronic distress. We have experienced two wars being fought simultaneously, a dwindling economy, unemployment, a stock market crash, epic natural disasters with high death tolls, such as tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, etc., and a host of other real and foreseeable fears. As a result, the number of people suffering from anxiety and a heightened sense of vulnerability has risen exponentially. And to make things even worse, modern-day technology gadgets, such as smart phones, allow us to watch these horrific events unfold before our very eyes, 24/7.

The product of a decade long period of trauma and being overly tuned-in to global events is a chronic, collective anxiety that has induced a world-weary feeling of fear and helplessness. The collective anxiety that is experienced by individuals means that our stress baseline is much higher than usual. We are hyper-sensitive to everything around us, and we tend to be more emotionally reactive to others and to activities of daily living that in the past were easier to handle. We are more inclined to habitually jump to conclusions, and we catastrophize or conjure up worst-case scenarios more frequently. We are also less patient with ourselves and others; we are edgy and easily triggered into irritation or rage. Simple, everyday worries can turn into full-blown obsessions that are energy sapping and time consuming. Falling victim to the collective anxiety also means we are less trustful and more skeptical about the safety and security of ourselves and loved ones. As a result, these acute symptoms disrupt our lives and can cause significant impairment in daily functioning.

One way we can help ourselves through these difficult times and adapt to the ever changing landscape of life in the new millennium is to understand that we must let go of our illusion of control.

"It's not the load that breaks you down, it's the way you carry it." What does this mean?

In varying degrees, most of us live with the illusion that we can somehow control critical facets of life. This illusion is very seductive, and it is designed to make us feel safer in the world. The funny part about it is that we really believe it works. We try to control things like people, the aging process, the stock market, and sometimes we even try to control what we rationally know is impossible. For example, if we are driving in heavy traffic and we are late for an important appointment, we think we can control or influence the flow of cars as they inch along the freeway or street. We do this by madly yelling at other drivers, honking our car horns and flipping people the bird.

When we think we have this type of control, we are essentially out of control, because we actually have very little control over anything. Then, when we enlist strategies to try and control something that is uncontrollable and we fail, we feel desperate, and our anxiety skyrockets.

Consequently, the following occurs:


The Goal

Therefore, the goal is not to change the world, people or places. The goal is to change our response to the world. It's not the load of the world that breaks us down, but how we naively think we can control it -- how we carry it. So, by letting go of what we do not have control over, we gain our life back. The only thing we have control over is ourselves.

Hundreds of years ago, the accepted truth about our planetary configuration was that the earth was the center of the universe and was responsible for the gravitational pull of the all the other planets. The earth was considered the centerpiece in which everything revolved around, much like our sun is seen today. If for some reason the earth shifted from its position as the heartbeat of the solar system, the planets could dangerously realign and go off course from their assigned orbits, and there would be complete interstellar chaos. Today, we see things quite differently. What is believed now is that earth is actually just a small planet that orbits around a sun vastly greater than itself and is not responsible for much at all.

Accordingly, we try to remember that we are not the center of anyone or anything's universe, and that we are just one diminutive planet out of many with only our own orbit to worry about. We let go of the almost pompous assumption that we possess this kind of power and control over anyone or anything. We simply don't have that kind of supremacy. The trick is not to try and find new landscapes necessarily, but to develop new eyes.

Process Orientation vs. Results Orientation -- Am I a "human being" or a "human doing?"

Another helpful way to transcend the illusion of control is to focus on a process orientation of thinking instead of a results orientation of thinking. Awareness of this self-induced, mal-adaptive behavior is a key step in greatly reducing symptoms of anxiety in all areas of functioning. Results orientation will turn us into "human doings" not "human beings."

Results orientation is a mindset based in the fantasy of needing control. Consequently, the only natural reflex human beings have to feeling afraid or threatened is to enlist control strategies or results oriented strategies to mitigate that anxiety.

A results orientation to living life means:

  • Worrying a great deal about the future

  • Beating ourselves up about things in the past
  • Being perfectionist about self and others
  • Believing one needs to please everyone at all times
  • Believing there are guarantees to all areas of life
  • Wanting to know that we and the people we love will always be safe
  • Process orientation also means I am a facilitator in the progress of my life, not a fixer. When I act as a facilitator to my life's unfolding, I am working at creating the conditions needed for success and happiness. I am putting aside the seductive quality of the outcome and grounding myself in the here and now, which is the only gray area that I have some control over. I am not reacting when things go wrong by reaching for empty fixes.

    Process orientation means:

    • Not trying to over-manage outcomes

  • Living in the moment and not focusing on future based thinking
  • Not dwelling in the past and trying to change it or reform it
  • Focusing on what I do indeed have control over in the present
  • Not manipulating anyone to seek approval of others
  • Acquiring the tools to unearth the gray areas of life
  • Therefore, insulating ourselves in this new era of uncertainty and chaos and reducing the level of anxiety in our lives means adopting a process oriented approach to life, where we are constantly working on letting go of the seductive need for control. Letting go of control means we begin the process of ultimately letting go of anxiety and focusing on our own orbit. In 12-step programs of recovery, they suggest that we "let go and let god."