‘I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened’. Mark Twain.There is a perception that anxiety is on the rise in recent times. Some even talk of an epidemic. The statistics do seem to support this. An estimated 25% of the US population suffers from some form of anxiety. In Australia, the figure is around 18%. One third of adult Americans take some form of mood altering medication. So what is going on here? Are we all getting more fearful?
People have always been anxious. Back in the 1850s, Henry Thoreau commented that, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
The 20 century saw two world wars and a major economic depression. There was a turning away from organised religion, and a rise in secularism. Jean Paul Sartre wrote that the only response to modern man’s existential aloneness was a feeling of angst.
For centuries we have been exposed to war and economic uncertainty, as well as religious fear and guilt about seeking pleasure and other deadly sins. Yet here we are in the 21 century with more wealth than ever before, less war, much less religious fear and guilt – and we are more anxious than ever!
In order to be free from anxiety, we need to firstly understand where it is coming from.
Twenty first century anxiety is not so much about external factors such as the economy or international terrorism – although these things do still play a part. Science is also barking up the wrong tree, looking for causes in brain chemistry. While it is true that anxiety produces changes in the body’s biochemistry, these are effects, not causes. Changing the chemistry through medication is just tinkering with symptoms. It doesn’t deal with the cause of the problem, and in fact creates further problems due to side effects and dependency. Self medicating with recreational drugs is also not addressing the real issue.
The cause of the apparent increase in anxiety these days is two-fold. Firstly, people are now more open about it. In the past these issues where often swept under the carpet, and people just “got on with things”. Now it is more acceptable to acknowledge and speak out about mental health problems.
Secondly, there has been a large cultural shift in recent years. It is an attitudinal shift affecting mostly the younger generation - an attitude that says, “I want to find fulfillment in my life”. Whereas previous generations where more content with any job, so long as it paid the bills, the present generation wants job satisfaction as well. And while previous generations where willing to endure all sorts of deprivations in their marriages and relationships, the current generation wants the perfect partner, perfect apartment, holiday, career, friends, yoga class and so on.
So as well as the age-old anxieties of safety and financial security, we have additional anxieties to do with seeking fulfillment. We might call these “first world” anxieties – the anxieties of a privileged class of people.
With any kind of anxiety, the starting point is to understand what you can and cannot control. Get clear about this.
Then do your best with what you can control, and learn to trust and let go with what you cannot control.
Working with what you can control means developing skills in areas where you want to work or excel. Seek the right education, guidance, mentoring, and job training that will maximise your chances of finding suitable work. Take care of your health. Develop interpersonal and relationship skills. Take a yoga class. Learn to meditate. Be realistic with your dreams and expectations.
It is often said that stress (and anxiety) is the distance between your expectations and the reality of the situation.
In other words, learn to distinguish between your needs and your wants. Life will support your needs, but not necessarily your wants. If you are dreaming of perfect relationships and million dollar apartments, you may just need to bring yourself down to earth a little.
These things are more or less within your control. Then there are many other things in life that are beyond your control. The global economy, natural disasters, political upheavals, other people’s reactions to you, plus the two aspects of life that people find most difficult to accept – impermanence and imperfection. It is beyond your, or anybody else’s ability to make anything – jobs, relationships or any situation – permanent or perfect. It’s just not in the nature of things. Situations change all the time. And everything has a yin and yang, good and bad, happy and sad mix of duality in it.
So, having done whatever is within our control, we are faced with the vastness of things beyond our control. How do we relate to all these in a way that is not anxious? Herein lies the crux of the whole matter.
What is the intelligent way to relate to something beyond your control? The answer, of course, is acceptance.
An attitudinal cause requires an attitudinal solution. And if you really want to be at ease with things, then accept and trust. Whenever something unexpected happens, or you’re unsure about an outcome, instead of getting anxious, learn to let go, surrender and trust in life. Narrow the gap between your expectations and reality. Tell yourself that maybe you don’t see the whole picture right now, so you trust that all the forces of life and the universe know what they are doing. You trust that life is supporting you and giving you what you need. You surrender to, and trust in the benevolence of the universe in every moment. You recognise you are part of the universe, and that the whole will take care of each part in the best possible way.
Trust is the antidote to anxiety.
Cultivating an attitude of trust is very helpful, but trust is more than just an attitude – it is also a state of the heart.
Sometimes a certain situation will trigger an old fear. Maybe you are up in an airplane, and you can’t control what the pilot or the weather is going to do. Then the first thing is to accept that the fear is there. Feel it as a sensation in your body. Be ok with it. Breathe into it and allow it to move through you. The more you accept it, the more it will start to subside. Then apply the antidote of trust. Breathe into and feel the area in your chest, around the heart. Let all the tension in that area soften. Let your heart slowly open to trusting that everything right now is OK. Relax, let go, surrender and trust. Repeat some of the affirmative statements from the previous paragraph.
Over time, as you practise this simple attitudinal shift, your anxieties will decrease more and more, and give way to the peace and joy of a trusting heart.
So far we have looked at two causes of the current prevalence of anxiety – a new willingness to be open about it, and the added pressure of finding fulfillment.
There is, I believe, a third contributing factor. We live in a culture where secular, materialistic values predominate, and spiritual values are lacking. As a result, when we look for fulfillment, we look in all the wrong places – in materialistic and hedonistic pursuits. So even if we succeed in our life goals, we still remain anxious. As the Buddha pointed out many years ago, worldly pleasures are fleeting. To find a lasting sense of fulfillment, and an abiding freedom from anxiety, we need to align ourselves with the deeper meaning and purpose of our lives.
How to do that is really the subject for another article. But for now, cultivating trust is a good starting point. Trust is a spiritual value, and will be a great help in finding the deeper, more spiritual purpose of your life.
From this larger perspective, anxiety may be seen as a signal from your subconscious that there is something missing in your life. Rather than seeing it as a disease and trying to medicate it away, see it as a friendly warning signal. If you can listen to it, and use it as a motivation to go on a spiritual quest, it has served a very useful purpose. You will end up looking back and being grateful for it.
Frank Vilaasa is a counsellor, healer and meditation teacher living in Fremantle WA. He is the author of What is Love? – the spiritual purpose of relationships and can be contacted at www.awaken-love.com