Every era has its ups and downs — war, natural disasters, economic trouble, social problems and crime. But what distinguishes today from any other era is our instant access to these devastating events. Thanks to a slew of ever-amazing technological advances, people can “watch tragedy and disaster on [their] smart phone,” said John Tsilimparis, MFT, director of the Anxiety and Panic Disorder Center of Los Angeles and author of the forthcoming book Retraining Your Anxious Mind: A New Approach to the Art of Anxiety Management.
But always being in the know has a downside. In fact, the combination of safety-compromising events — 9/11, its upcoming 10th anniversary, terrorism, tsunamis, tornadoes, earthquakes, unemployment, dwindling economy — and 24/7 access can cause a kind of collective anxiety and helplessness, he said. (Interestingly, he’s noticed more people coming in with anxiety issues to his private practice and other facilities where he works.)
If you’re worried about the state of the world — or you’re struggling with anxiety in general — there are steps you can take. Tsilimparis discusses what fuels anxiety and how to overcome it.
For many people, anxiety comes from clinging to the illusion of control, Tsilimparis said. People think that they can control what happens in their country and with other people. They search for ways to control their environment to ensure safety and curtail anxiety. But the tighter you cling to the idea of controlling uncontrollable events, the greater your anxiety — because you inevitably fail.
Dualistic thinking — black-or-white, all-or-nothing thinking — also fuels anxiety: America is either safe or it isn’t; the economy is either swelling or sinking. There are no shades of gray, even though, as Tsilimparis said, few absolutes exist in life.
People with elevated anxiety also hold certain rigid beliefs about how they should live their lives, known as adhering to a “consensus reality,” or one-way thinking, he said. For instance, you might believe that by the time you’re 28, you should be married and have children. Or you might define happiness as owning your own home or success as making a six-figure salary.
What also drives anxiety is perfectionism — “you either succeed at 100 percent or fail at 97 percent” — and relying on others’ approval, Tsilimparis said. Looking for outside validation inevitably leaves people walking on eggshells and panicked over whether they’ve said the right thing or have done the right thing.
Solutions for Anxiety
First, it’s important to separate out the things you can control from the things you can’t. In other words, the motto your parents probably taught you is all too true: The only thing you have control over is yourself, Tsilimparis said. He admits that the statement is “trite and simplistic” but no doubt accurate.