There have been times in my life – especially in my twenties and early thirties – when I felt utterly overwhelmed and ill-equipped to cope with what I was experiencing. Depending on which of my past therapists you talked to, I was dealing with post-traumatic stress syndrome, generalized anxiety disorder, or both.
We all have different levels of nervous system reactivity. Some of us are more mellow and easy going, while others of us can go from zero to sixty with just a glance from a stranger or the thought of being stuck in traffic. No matter where we are on the reactivity scale, we all live in a world that can trigger and reinforce anxiety and stress.
We are invited to watch continuous cable coverage of everything that is going wrong in the world. We are bombarded with images of models and millionaires that remind us of how we are falling short. We are encouraged to worry about uncontrollable events, compare ourselves to others, be dissatisfied with what we have, and strive to be perfect.
We are led to believe that the path to success is razor thin with the peril of failure on all sides. What if we haven’t discovered our passion? What if we don’t love our job? What if we aren’t living up to our potential? What if we didn’t invest in Apple, Google, or Amazon? What if we don’t meditate or we occasionally eat processed food? What if sometimes we yell at our children and other times we do too much for them?
We are also told that we should not be feeling all this stress and anxiety – we are supposed to be happy and relaxed. All your friends on Facebook, Instagram, Linkedin seem to be doing so well in their shiny balanced lives. So now we can be anxious and stressed about the fact that we are anxious and stressed. It is the perfect trap – our efforts to get rid of stress and anxiety reinforce the idea that there is something wrong with us for having these feelings in the first place.
Advertisers offer the reassurance all we need is an upgrade — we can escape the discomfort of being human with a prescription medication, recreational drugs, cosmetics, a more attractive partner, or a brilliant purchase. There are self-improvement books and classes everywhere you turn. Lasting happiness sits just on the horizon or around the corner if you are a savvy consumer – or so we are encouraged to believe.
I want to be clear – I don’t think that this is some clever conspiracy drummed up by powerful people behind a curtain. I think this is a result of collective insecurities and hopeful myths that have been around for a long time. We have simply invented increasingly effective and pervasive ways of communicating these – print, radio, television, laptops, smartphones, smartwatches…
What is the alternative? Rather than feeding our stress and anxiety or fighting our stress and anxiety, we can meet them with awareness, acceptance, and compassion. Cultivating these internal resources allows us to participate in modern society with less attachment to the myths that support our stress and anxiety or the myth that we shouldn’t be experiencing them.
Awareness, acceptance, and compassion are skills that can be strengthened with practice. These skills allow us to see that we are not alone. All human beings struggle – we all want to escape discomfort and we all have moments of wondering if there is something wrong with us. These skills allow us to see a bit sooner when we are caught in the circus of it all and step back (and maybe even laugh a bit at the whole thing).
We can spend time in silence everyday. It turns out that just spending time in silence may be good for your brain in a hyper stimulating world.
We can practice noticing and accepting what is going on within us and around us. The practice of mindfulness can support your overall wellbeing.
None of these practices will eliminate stress and anxiety from the human experience, but they can help us find the space between fueling and fleeing them. And it turns out that there is a lot of space there.