We live in the age of anxiety. As a psychologist who has studied anxiety and treated hundreds of anxious patients, I see it eclipsing all other problems as a major psychological issue in the 21st century. Each day, I treat people who worry constantly and can’t relax, who feel tense and achy, and who have difficulty sleeping — all hallmarks of anxiety. Survey data confirm anxiety is ubiquitous.
Nearly one-third of American adults say they feel more anxious than a year ago, according to a May poll from the American Psychiatric Association. The number of Google searches including “anxiety” has increased steadily over the past five years, according to Google Trends. And the National Institute of Mental Health reports that anxiety disorders have become the most common group of mental disorders, with about one-fifth of U.S. adults struggling with an anxiety disorder each year, and almost one-third experiencing an anxiety disorder during their lifetimes.
I see plausible explanations in the way we’ve evolved and, paradoxically, in the way we try to manage anxiety. These explanations can point us toward several powerful techniques that can reverse the trend of rising anxiety.
Humans have evolved over millions of years to be good at detecting threats in the environment. Ancestors who excelled at fighting or fleeing from dangerous situations were more likely to survive, and we have inherited their genes.
Living in the developed world does not typically bring us into constant contact with life-threatening danger. But our threat-detection system remains vigilant, and it’s being bombarded like never before. “We live in constant state of threat owing to the 24-hour news cycle” and digital interconnection, said David Sloan Wilson, professor of biology and anthropology at Binghamton University and president of the Evolution Institute. Whether it is in reaction to another photo or article about a recent shooting, grounded planes, trade wars or the latest stroller recall, our anxiety has constant opportunity to flare up.
Our lives differ dramatically from our ancestors’ in other ways. Hunter-gatherers were much more active — walking to find food or shelter, running from predators, climbing, lifting heavy objects, and fighting. They followed the rhythms of nature and slept when night fell. And they belonged to small, tightknit communities or extended families.
“Many of us are like animals in captivity,” said Kelly Wilson, a psychology professor at the University of Mississippi. “When you immobilize rats and other animals, you can basically create the state of anxiety or depression.” The length and quality of our sleep have been compromised by light-emitting devices, information overload and societal standards; many of my clients comment that they feel guilty or lazy for sleeping longer than six hours. Uneven economic opportunities and geographic mobility have led to the decline of traditional extended families and lifelong local communities. More than a quarter of U.S. adults live alone, and nearly half reported feeling lonely or excluded in a 2018 survey.
Evolutionary mismatch is not the only issue. Another problem is how we’ve been trying to deal with anxiety. Because being anxious can be an uncomfortable and scary experience, we resort to conscious or unconscious strategies that help reduce anxiety in the moment — watching a movie or TV show, eating, drinking, Internet browsing, video-game playing, dating-app swiping, and overworking. Smartphones provide a distraction any time of the day or night. Psychological research has shown that distractions serve as a common anxiety avoidance strategy.
Paradoxically, however, these avoidance strategies make anxiety worse in the long run. Being anxious is like getting into quicksand — the more you fight it, the deeper you sink. Indeed, research strongly supports Carl Jung’s maxim that “What you resist, persists.”
Their avoidance extends to more and more aspects of their lives so that, in the words of several clients, “the world becomes so small.” And they’re passing this problem on to their children.
“In almost 40 years of practice, I have noticed that people are becoming less tolerant of distress,” said clinical psychologist Mary Alvord, director of Alvord, Baker & Associates in Maryland. “Parents are more protective of their children,” robbing kids of the opportunity to learn how to deal with stress, she said. So the new generation is growing up avoiding discomfort or pain until it becomes too much, and they become overwhelmed by it.
The evolutionary mismatch hypothesis suggests several approaches for reducing anxiety: Disconnect occasionally from electronic devices, move more — preferably in nature — sleep enough and without distractions, and prioritize in-person time with friends and family.
These changes need not be dramatic. Research shows that disconnecting from Facebook alone for a few days can lead to lower stress. If starting an exercise regimen sounds daunting, begin by walking a few minutes a day and gradually increase the time. Interrupting long periods of sitting with even short bursts of activity has proved to help. If sleep frequently eludes you, turn off all electronic devices at least an hour before bed and remove them from your room. Keeping your bedroom dark and cool will also promote good sleep. Finally, make a list of all the people who are important to you and with whom you’ve kept in touch only via social media for a while. Then call them and set up a time to meet.
How can we stop dealing with our anxiety by distracting ourselves? Cognitive behavior therapy offers helpful suggestions. Notice when your body becomes tense and you feel the urge to escape by pulling out your phone or reaching for a drink. Then delay that escape for a few minutes. See what happens as your mind and body experience the discomfort. Repeat this each time you notice anxiety appearing, and try to delay the habitual responses longer and longer. You are likely to realize that anxiety is not as scary and won’t last as long as you feared.
Most importantly, Alvord said, this practice will help you build “confidence that you can handle it.”
When your discomfort prevents you from doing something that matters, gently push yourself beyond your comfort zone. For example, enter a crowded gathering even though you feel socially anxious. At first, you might only be willing to tolerate fear for just a little while, but over time the tolerance muscle gets stronger and “you learn that you can do it, even if it’s scary,” said Marvin Goldfried, distinguished professor of clinical psychology at Stony Brook University.
For people with serious anxiety problems or disorders, these and other cognitive behavioral therapy strategies should be implemented with the guidance of a mental health professional. For the rest — the answer is to let go of the struggle and stop attempting to control your emotions. As Jaclyn Nicole Johnston, an administrator at the University of Texas, put it: “I typically chose to attempt escaping my anxiety through shopping, happy hours and going to movies. I no longer attempt to escape it. I now acknowledge it when it starts to creep up to the surface again, and I allow it to pass through instead of focusing on it.”
Jelena Kecmanovic is a clinical psychologist and the founder and director of Arlington/DC Behavior Therapy Institute.