Is there really more Anxiety today than ever before?
Recently I was asked, “Do you think there is more anxiety today, or do you think that we are just better at diagnosing it?” The wording of the question makes it difficult to answer. Is the question, “Do we have more to be anxious about today?” Or were they asking “Are more people suffering from anxiety disorders today than before?” The first question is difficult to answer objectively. But, it seems clear that compared to previous generations, we are less equipped to handle the anxieties that face us today.
Without a doubt, daily living has changed during this current generation. Life today is fast-paced. The worries of previous generations were limited by time and distance. With today’s technology, we are relentlessly assailed by a stream of disease, death, and destruction from around the world. Not only has the economy globalized, but so have our worries. Simply put—it seems like we have more to worry about than previous generations. But, if we stop to compare the size of our worries (the gravity and likelihood of possible negative outcomes), instead of the amount of details, the case could be made that the “worries” of this generation are less than any generation before us.
Our parents worried about the draft, the Vietnam and Korean wars, and sky-rocketing interest rates. Our grandparents and great-grand parents faced World War I and II, Polio, and the Great Depression. Their parents wondered how many of their children would live to adulthood, if they would survive an American Civil War, and where they would find food, clean water, and adequate shelter.
From 1550 to 1850, life expectancy in the UK hovered at 40 years of age. It was assumed that every 2nd or 3rd child would die in infancy. In 1845, if you reached the age of 5, you could expect to live until 55 years old–if you were lucky. Why weren’t people consumed with anxiety like we see today? We often explain it by saying, “That’s just how it was. People knew the facts and what to expect, and they just dealt with it.”
And that’s exactly the point! People expected challenges. They knew they had to learn to deal with them, and they did! And from my experience, we of this generation struggle to do the same.
A Foundation of Faith
One major difference between young adults today and the previous generation is a general faith that “things will work out.” A strong belief in a loving and just God, seemed to give past generations an overall sense that somehow all would be well—even in the face of death. Discussing this with a student, I asked “What is this generation afraid of?” Her immediate and brief reply, “Everything!” summed it up. Even among youth of faith, there seems to be a disconnect between the belief that “everything will work out,” and “everything will work out for me personally.”
What is causing this lack of confidence? I believe that to some degree it is the result of bad examples and a lack of teaching. I was reminded of this a few nights ago when my wife and I sat in our room discussing a troubling situation. Sometime later, our 10-year-old son (who was not included in the previous conversation) entered our room looking gravely concerned. “What are you going to do about that?” he asked. He had overheard our conversation and it was now a personal worry for him. Seeing his reaction, I realized that in our discussion as adults we had failed to express the calming assurance that things would work out.
Gordon B. Hinckley, beloved LDS leader and community activist taught, “It isn’t as bad as you sometimes think it is. It all works out. Don’t worry. I say that to myself every morning. It will all work out. If you do your best, it will all work out. Put your trust in God, and move forward with faith and confidence in the future. The Lord will not forsake us. He will not forsake us. … If we will put our trust in Him, if we will pray to Him, if we will live worthy of His blessings, He will hear our prayers” (Jordan Utah South regional conference, Priesthood session, 1 Mar. 1997).
This deep-rooted belief that a loving and powerful God is watching over us, seems to be missing today. Without it, we can easily drown in the worrisome issues that are poured upon us daily. For that belief to take hold, we may need to repeat it to ourselves every morning, as did Gordon Hinckley.
The Four F’s of Controlling Worry
Sometimes we approach our treatment of mental illness like we treat a bacterial infection—take prescribed medication for a certain amount of time until symptoms subside. However, effectively treating anxiety disorders may be more like treating a muscle tear or sprain. Even when medication is prescribed, controlling anxiety usually requires some mental exertion. This may include things like learning resolution techniques, self-talk, and possibly short or long-term therapy. Unlike muscle sprains, there is no one set of exercises that works for all people. But, I have found that following the “Four F’s” of controlling worry works very well. Many of these ideas are taken from Dale Carnegie’s book “How to stop worrying, and start living.”
Have you ever had this conversation?
Child: I can’t go to sleep.
Child: I’m scared.
Over 22 years of trying to persuade, coerce, and bribe children to go to sleep, I now know that the response, “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” does not work. To help children overcome their fear sufficient to sleep, you must identify the fear first. Through the years, my wife and I have heard just about every fear in the book; monsters, the dark, germs, girls, boys, baths, spelling tests, and the list goes on. Some of those fears I felt were very legitimate, while others were obviously stalling techniques. However, without Finding the fear, resolving it was practically impossible.
To uncover a fear that has been buried, justified, or rationalized into something almost indiscernible, can be very challenging. Our fears may be hidden even to ourselves. When my stomach is in knots, I try to do a little personal diagnosing by asking questions such as; “What am I worrying about?” Or “What am I afraid is going to happen?”
For all of us Rocky fans, Rocky III provides a good example of someone finding their fear. Rocky is struggling to prepare for his challenger “Clubber” Lang (played by “Mr. T.”) After weeks of trying unsuccessfully to get Rocky to dance, jump rope, swim, and generally have the “Eye of the Tiger,” Apollo Creed (Rocky’s nemesis turned trainer) declares that it is over. Adriane, Rocky’s wife and therapist, approaches him and demands, “What’s wrong with you?” Rocky eventually responds, “I’m afraid, alright.” Adriane continues to dig until he confesses, “I’m afraid of losing; of losing you, of losing the kid…” Now that Rocky has identified his fear, he can face it! (Cue music…Rising-up…)
Get the Facts
Once you have identified your fear, you can begin to face it. Is it rational, logical, probable, or even possible? To successfully face our fears, we must get the facts. As Herbert Hawkes of Columbia College said, “Confusion is the chief cause of worry…If we will devote our time to securing facts in an impartial, objective way, our worries will usually evaporate in the light of knowledge…” As I tell my children, the quickest way to stop worrying about something being under your bed, is to actually look under it!
An honest evaluation of our past fears will reveal that most of what we worry about never happens. Sometimes facing our fears requires us to calculate the odds that our fear will actually happen. Unlike monsters under the bed, there are times when our fears are valid–such as a fear of sharks when you are swimming in the ocean. But, just knowing there “is A chance,” is not enough. For example, in 2016 there were 107 shark attacks worldwide—which sounds like a lot, until you realize that on the 4th of July, a single beach (Ocean City, Maryland) had 300,000 sun-seeking visitors. Comparing the 107 shark-attacks to the hundreds of millions of ocean-goers each year, reveals that our chances of being bitten by a shark are fewer than a million to one. This type of reasoning may not completely eliminate our fear, but it does help us to know how much worry is justified.
Determine and Prepare for the Worst
Some individuals create potential negative outcomes that are completely illogical. This happened to me as a 10 year-old child. Without seeking the permission of my parents, I placed an order with Time-Life books by simply calling the number I saw on TV. Before long, shipments, and bills, began to arrive. I soon realized that a 10 year old has no money, and I hid the educational books from my parents. Each day my fears of what would happen to me increased until it made me physically sick. I became convinced that my failure to pay meant I would be arrested and sent to jail. Eventually, I confessed my terrible secret to my parents. To my surprise, they easily handled the situation by sending back the shipments without payment–or jail time. My life behind bars was averted, and I could once again sleep and eat in peace.
My older brother was brilliant at measuring potential consequences. If he wanted me to do something that I believed would lead to punishment from my parents—he would always say, “Look, what is the worst that could happen? They could spank us!” Then he would explain how what we were doing was worth the spanking–should it come to that. Genius! His ability to reason through consequences this way made him the most carefree child I ever knew.
Dale Carnegie tells the story of William Carrier, the famous heating and air-conditioning inventor and mogul. Carrier had made a very costly mistake in the HVAC of a large company. He worried about it for months, eventually becoming physically ill. Finally, he realized that he must face his fear. As he faced the likely consequences he realized that even if the worst happened, he would be alright. From this experience, Mr. Carrier developed a 3-step process for conquering his anxiety:
Step I: Analyze the situation fearlessly and honestly and figure out what is the worst that could possibly happen.
Step II: Reconcile yourself to accept it if necessary.
Step III: Devote your time and energy to trying to improve upon the worst (which you have already accepted mentally)
Make a Plan
Once we have found and faced our fears, we can devote our time and energy trying to fix, eliminate, or control them. As you approach your problems, apply this little rhyme, “Make a plan, then do the very best you can!” In the example above, Mr. Carrier made earnest efforts to improve upon his mistake. He studied, researched, and developed several viable solutions. To his credit, working through this experience helped him to advance new systems and techniques that revolutionized the industry.
I love the idea that plans aren’t really plans until they are written down. When making a plan, don’t just dive into the first idea that comes to your mind. It is better to ponder, research, and develop multiple solutions, and then weigh them against each other. There is a point, however, when deliberation must give way to decision. As Carnegie said, “There comes a time when further study of the facts will only add confusion to the problem.” Once a plan has been decided upon, all of the effort that was uselessly expended on worrying, can be transferred to working your plan.
Occupy Your Mind
I have often wondered why children wait to worry until they are laying in their beds. When I inquired of one child about this phenomenon the answer was, “I don’t know. I never thought of it.” There is actually a very important principle in this exchange. Children usually don’t worry during the day, because their minds are occupied with other things. In essence, they’ve forgotten to worry.
As amazing as our minds are, it is still difficult for us to truly concentrate on more than one thing at a time—even for women! Part of the genius of Dr. “Patch” Adams, who sometimes dresses as a clown for his patients, is the idea that a mind distracted by something good has less time and energy to focus on pain and fear.
In the Matthew 12, Jesus tells of an evil spirit cast from its comfortable abode. After roaming the land, it returns to find its previous home swept and empty and so it re-enters bringing seven others with him. There would have been no room for the evil spirit, had the vacant home been filled with “good Spirits.” As Norman Vincent Peale explained,
“If we think happy thoughts, we will be happy. If we think miserable thoughts, we will be miserable. If we think fear thoughts, we will be fearful. If we think sickly thoughts, we will probably be ill. If we think failure, we will certainly fail. If we wallow in self-pity, everyone will want to shun us and avoid us. “You are not what you think you are; but what you think, you are.”
Do Not Let Fear Linger
Once we have made our plans and are doing the very best we can, we can more easily eliminate our anxiety. When worry and fear begin to cloud our minds and control our hearts, we can learn to say, “No, I won’t worry about that. I have faced that fear. I have a plan; I am working my plan, and I will not worry.” As a religious educator, I have often recommended that students expel fear from their minds much like they do other tempting or inappropriate thoughts.
Admiral Ernest J. King, Director of the United States Navy during WWII, was asked how he handled the stress of knowing that soldiers may die because of his decisions. His answer shows the power of replacing worry with action. He said, “I have supplied the best men with the best equipment we have…and have given them what seems to be the wisest mission. That is all I can do. If a ship has been sunk, I can’t bring it up. If it is going to be sunk, I can’t stop it. I can use my time much better working on tomorrow’s problem than by fretting about yesterday’s. Besides, if I let those things get me, I wouldn’t last long.” (Admiral Ernest J. King: Director of the United States Navy During WWII, Found in How to Stop Worrying and Start Living: Dale Carnegie)
Live for Today
Finally, it is very easy to fill our lives with “but what if tomorrow…” Jesus expressly taught that we must prepare for tomorrow, but that we should not worry about it. Remember that Moses was sent Manna daily, and forbidden to collect for tomorrow. The Psalmist wrote: “This is the day which the Lord hath made; We will rejoice and be glad in it.” (Psalm 118) Christ prayed, “Give us this day, our daily bread.” And he taught, “Take therefore no thought for the morrow; for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” It appears that the Lord is satisfied if we can learn to master the challenges of even the present day.
Last year I bought a small off-road motorcycle that I hoped to teach my children to ride. I decided to use my extremely novice skills as a mechanic to give the bike a little tune-up. Something went terribly wrong resulting in catastrophic engine failure. I was told by a real mechanic that fixing the engine would cost much more than the bike was worth. I parked it in my garage where it taunted me every day as I left and returned from work. Each time I saw the bike I got upset. The result was that for several weeks I left for work and returned home upset. One day I decided it was enough. Not only had that motorcycle cost me a lot of money and embarrassment, now it was costing my happiness—and that was too much to pay. I wheeled the bike outside and soon sold it for a few dollars for parts.
The older I get, the more I realize that our lives are relatively short. We cannot afford to waste any of our precious days worrying about things that may never happen, or that we cannot control. We must learn to find, face, fix, and forget those fears that are within our control.
Even the most troubled life has much to be thankful for. The world, and most of the people in it, is good and meant to be enjoyed. At the beginning of a recent class where we had been discussing the wonders of creation, I asked if anyone had done anything exciting since our last class. A student shot his hand up and said, “Yes. I’ve been thinking about our recent discussions and all that we’ve been given. I decided to take a day off and go snow skiing, which I had never done before. I just didn’t want to get to heaven and meet Jesus without having tried skiing–since He had done so much to make it possible.”
Now, that’s the kind of thinking I like!
Not all anxiety is the same. Scientists have identified and named well over a dozen types of anxiety. For our conversation, we will identify three of the most common, and that encompass many of the other types.
Acute or Situational Anxiety: Acute stress related reactions (elevated heart rate, feelings of nausea, tremors, depression, irritable, loss of appetite) to a specific situation. Often the reactions will settle once the situation has passed. This is common in a dangerous situation or before a major life event—marriage, birth, finals, etc.
General Anxiety Disorder (GAD): With general anxiety disorder, the physical and mental stress reactions persist over an indefinite amount of time. They may come and go, and fluctuate in intensity. Often the individual stresses over multiple home, family, or work problems. Sometimes, the individual will experience symptoms without being able to identify a specific stress or fear.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD): An individual with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder may have a target obsession, such as germs, hand-washing, disasters, etc. Although some of their phobias are valid, the amount of worry is disproportionate to the actual threat.
Most types of anxiety have one thing in common; people are worried about something. They may be worried about one specific thing, or a few things, or everything! Realizing this fact, the question becomes, “How can we learn to stop worrying?”