Want to Feel Less Anxious? Give Up Some Control by D. H. Rosmarin
One psychologist’s case for embracing uncertainty
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than three in 10 Americans will have a full-blown anxiety disorder over the course of their lifetimes.
Worse, nearly one in four of these cases will be characterized as “severe,” meaning a person is unable to function from day to day or becomes suicidal because of anxiety symptoms.
[Why is anxiety at such high levels in American society, in spite of the fact many people are well off financially? The psychologist speculates it may be Americans are uncomfortable with experiencing uncertainty and wanting to have control over everything in life]
…..People cannot stand to fail or experience setbacks.
In the 1950s, 22% of the country lived in dire poverty, versus less than 10% in 2018.
Yet we helicopter-parent our children through adolescence and even young adulthood to make sure they do not experience failure.
As a result, children don’t expect to struggle, and when they do, their internal worlds are shaken to the core.
Relatedly, people cannot tolerate uncertainty.
We constantly need to be “in the know” with minute-to-minute predictions about financial markets, political trends, professional sports outcomes, and the weather.
And despite the fact that such predictions are notoriously incorrect, we monitor them with bated breath.
People would prefer to predict the future and be dead wrong than admit they truly don’t know what is going to happen next!
What’s more, we have unrealistic expectations that our emotions should be even-keeled all the time. Normal mood fluctuations are interpreted as signs of weakness, impending doom, and psychopathology.
The natural response is to turn to medications, which can certainly help in some cases, but often symptoms eventually “break through” and distress returns.
At that point, we are even more sensitized to our moods, and our symptoms cascade. When these trends occur on a mass scale, they result in rampant increases in the prevalence and severity of anxiety.
What’s the solution? I don’t know for sure, but if our obsession with control is a primary reason why we are so anxious, then the antidote could be simple: We need to accept uncertainty and give up control.
Giving up control involves embracing failures. All successful people fail. We should aim for greatness and strive for perfection but recognize that attaining the latter is a lifelong process.
Giving up control also involves accepting that uncertainty is a part of life. The reality is that we don’t know very much, and we definitely cannot predict the future. Embracing our lack of knowledge and making a “best guess” is far more empowering than needing certainty to make decisions.
Perhaps most important of all, though, is that we need to stop expecting to feel perfectly happy and emotionally well all the time.
Life can be hard, and emotions can fluctuate for better or worse. That is the way we’re built!
When people pretend to have the power to control their emotions, the emotions only become harder to control.
Some people can shift their mindset on their own and lessen their anxiety in the process. But for those who struggle to do so, psychotherapy can help.
Many modalities of psychotherapy can help people respond more productively to feelings of anxiety, but none offers as explicit a way forward as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
CBT’s main technique is exposure therapy, which involves facing one’s fears head-on. Anxious patients are encouraged to do things that make them feel stressed and uncomfortable, as long as the activities are not genuinely dangerous.
Patients with fears of germs put their hands inside toilet bowls (literally), individuals with social phobia give public speeches, folks with panic disorder constrict their breathing using coffee straws, and worrywarts are encouraged to write out their worst fears in exquisite detail.
The ultimate goal of these exercises is to give up control — over life circumstances and emotions — and to learn to be okay while you completely lose clarity and composure.
Read the rest of that article here