If you yearn for a quieter, more peaceful era, it's not necessarily that you're looking at the past with Vaseline- and gauze-covered lenses or watching too many old television shows on Nick at Nite. Research indicates that we, as a culture, are more anxious than we used to be. What do psychologists mean by anxious? It means feeling agitated or nervous, often about some potential upcoming danger.
Adults are more anxiety-prone than were adults in the 1950s. And it's not just adults. Today's average child is more prone to anxiety than the average child from the 1950s who had a psychiatric diagnosis!
So what might account for this trend? Why might all of us -- including children -- be more anxious now than we were decades ago? Compared with 50 years ago, we seem to have more dangers, and we are constantly made more aware of the dangers thanks to the 24/7 news cycle that is constantly sounding the alarm about harmful foods, air, water, child molesters and kidnappers, biological weapons, potential terrorism threats, crime, impending natural disasters (click here to see a website that tries to prepare children for disasters), financial crises, (cyber)bullying and other potentially harmful aspects of life. Not to mention the dangers drummed into us about unhealthy lifestyles, such as overeating, not exercising enough, having unsafe sex, driving drunk or not using sunscreen. The take-home message: there are dangers everywhere. It's hard to avoid this message. No wonder we're more anxious.
It's not just these dangers that make use more anxious. Our pace of life has increased radically since the 1950s. (Just watch a film that came out in the 1950s -- you will be struck by the slow pace of the film!) Technological advances such as the Internet, smartphones, email, text messaging and Twitter have raised expectations that responses should be immediate and that everyone should be available, on call, all the time. By today's standards, FedEx's and UPS's next-morning delivery seems slow. As the pace of life has increased, we have additional dangers to watch out for that ultimately boil down to being too slow -- too slow in responding to your boss, a job opening, a partner's text message, a family member's phone call. So we have to quicken our pace, be ever-ready to respond -- and even responding may be too slow! We have to initiate at double-speed, before others can get into that "space." We have to be the first to blog about some topic, the first to have a solution to a problem at work, the first to... you get the idea.
So what's the solution? We're not going to ditch our smartphones and stop using the Internet, and we can't take away the dangers in our society (though we can mobilize to try to minimize them). Moreover, anxiety is not always a bad thing; a certain level of anxiety mobilizes us to break through procrastination and spurs us to be productive and creative. But too much anxiety can paralyze us, cause us to make lots of mistakes or impair our judgment.
Part of the solution is to recognize when your level of anxiety is working against you, that it's interfering with your optimal functioning. When that happens, you want to lower your baseline level of anxiety or reduce your increasing anxiety level in the moment. Here are nine ways to decrease your baseline level of anxiety or reduce it when it starts to escalate; try them all and see which ones work best for you:
- Take deep, relaxing breaths. When we're anxious, we tend to breathe shallowly and less frequently, which creates a vicious cycle that maintains or increases anxiety. Try to take full diaphragmatic breaths; instructions are here.
- Exercise. When you're anxious, you typically experience increased heart and breathing rates, and you sweat; you experience these and other symptoms that are the same as those experienced with exercise. Thus, exercise serves two purposes: 1) it makes these physical symptoms appropriate for the context, and 2) it helps take away some of the physical agitation so that you will feel less anxious.
- Meditate. Meditation can help reduce anxiety. It can take a while to get the hang of it, so the first few weeks can be frustrating. Try to hang in there with it.
- Do yoga. Yoga combines meditation and exercise.
- Reduce your caffeine intake. If you are experiencing anxiety, you should try to cut back your caffeine intake -- caffeine and similar substances found in black and green teas and in chocolate will make the anxiety worse. To avoid a caffeine withdrawal headache, gradually cut back your caffeine intake over a few days.
- Try relaxation techniques. Various relaxation techniques, such as progressive muscle relaxation, breathing techniques and guided imagery, can reduce anxiety.
- Obtain social support. Try talking to others about or asking for help with the things that make you anxious, and see whether it helps.
- Problem-solve instead of spinning your wheels. When we're anxious, we may spend significant time and energy thinking about the things making us anxious and potential consequences (e.g., "What if..."). Such thinking can either be productive, leading us to identify anxiety-inducing problems and their solutions, or unproductive, leading us to "spin our wheels." With the latter, our thoughts simply stay focused on whatever makes us anxious, which ends up making us more anxious. When you notice this happening, try to shift into problem-solving mode: what is the problem and what are possible solutions?
- Use a six-second technique to decrease your anxiety. Click on my previous post for instructions.
Robin S. Rosenberg, Ph.D., ABPP is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Stanford, Calif. Rosenberg specializes in treating people with eating disorders, depression and anxiety. She often writes about the psychology of superheroes and has co-authored several psychology textbooks, including "Abnormal Psychology" and "Introducing Psychology: Brain, Person, Group." To find out more about Dr. Rosenberg and her work, read her Psychology Today blog and visit her on Red Room.
Copyright 2011 Robin S. Rosenberg