We are living in the midst of an anxiety epidemic.
More and more people are suffering from anxiety, related to work, their personal lives and various other factors.
This is arguably the best time in history to be alive, yet we are more anxious than ever before.
We can’t go 10 minutes without checking our phone to see if our messages have received a response.
We attribute twinges in our bodies to serious illnesses, when in fact, they are nothing of the sort.
We are more connected than ever before as a species, yet we feel lonelier than ever.
Almost all of this is due to anxiety.
It rears its ugly head into our lives at any opportunity.
On paper we should be less anxious than ever, but we are not.
Something isn’t right.
To understand this conundrum, we need to investigate what anxiety really is, and why it is affecting us so profoundly.
The Purpose ofAnxiety
As much as we would like to rid ourselves of anxiety, we can’t.
It’s an essential part of our makeup, and was vitally important as we evolved from apes to the species that dominates the globe today.
Without anxiety, we may not have risen to the top of the food chain.
When we think of anxiety, the first thing that comes to mind is the flight or fight response.
10,000 years ago, this response was fundamental to our survival.
If our ancestors encountered a lion or a sabre-tooth tiger, their fight or flight response would kick in. This would allow them to summon the strength and the mental capacity to evade trouble and survive another day.
Without anxiety, the results would have been drastically different.
An example is the megafauna of New Zealand.
Humans only set foot in New Zealand 800 years ago, yet within a couple of centuries, the majority of the megafauna had become extinct.
There are multiple theories as to why, but the most plausible is that humans were primarily responsible.
These creatures had lived in isolation for thousands of years, they had never encountered humans before.
When they did, they would have taken one look at us, with our long limbs and turned back to whatever they were doing.
They did not perceive us a threat, whereas the animals that roamed the plains of Africa and Asia, knew better than get to close to humans.
The creatures of new Zealand had not developed an anxiety towards humans, and it was their undoing.
Anxiety is an evolutionary tactic, which helps species survive and pass on their DNA to the next generation.
Without it, we would have gone the way of the Dodo.
But that leaves a problem.
How does anxiety fit into today’s world, where we are no longer at danger from predators, and war is less frequent?
The Anxiety Problem
In today’s world we have less of a need for anxiety, yet we seem to be suffering from it more than ever.
Where in the past we would get anxious about our very survival, today we are anxious about trivial things such as how many likes our post receives on Facebook.
It’s enough to make you yearn for simpler times!
Anxiety still has a place in our world. If we walked into the wrong part of town, and we were eyed up by some rough looking characters, our fight or flight response would be a blessing.
However, these scenarios are becoming less and less infrequent.
We are living in the longest sustained period of peace in human history.
The threat of war is low, the threat of invasion by a foreign country is next to zero, it’s a golden age for humanity.
Yet, mental health problems are exploding.
This is an astonishing statistic.
Shouldn’t we be happier than ever before, considering so many of the threats to our survival as a species have been removed?
The simple answer is yes, but it’s more complicated than that.
Anxiety is a part of us. No matter how much we would like to be free of anxious thoughts, they are here to stay.
As we no longer need to worry about our survival, we have shifted our worries onto other areas of our lives.
Our appearance, our jobs, our relationships.
We are more connected than ever, but the constant notifications and updates on social media have made us more miserable than ever.
Where once our fears an anxieties were well-founded, now they are trivial.
There is no one solution for anxiety.
It would always be a part of us, so we simply can’t remove like we would a tumour.
We have to find a way of managing it.
A simple way is to change the way we look at things.
If we step into the garden and observe the lawn, the first thought that pops into our head might be, “ That grass could do with cutting.” Whereas, a child will run out in the garden and excitedly yell, “Look over there, it’s an ant!”
The reality is most of us go about our daily lives on autopilot. The wonder we experienced as a child is replaced by a business-like outlook on the world.
Yet, noticing what we don’t normally notice can have a big difference.
Instead of worrying about the past or the future, if we pull ourselves into the present, and enjoy the moment, we will relieve our anxieties.
Our attention is a valuable commodity.
It is fought over by numerous apps, TV shows and gadgets.
If we learn to focus our attention on what is right in front of us, and focus our attention on the present moment, we will feel better.
We will never be free of anxiety, our minds will wander, but anxiety doesn’t have to dominate our lives.
By being present and mindful, we give ourselves the choice to exert control over our emotions, and avoid mental ruts that have stalked us in the past.