Is There a Reason we're Getting More Anxious ?

By Farzana Rahman

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Were We Always Anxious ?

One of the earliest things you learn in medical school is to use all the information available to predict outcomes and worse-case scenarios. 

I remember finding this task incredibly difficult when I was a medical student. It wasn’t the information gathering part that was difficult, it was using the information to predict the future.  Of course, part of this was because I simply didn’t know that much about medicine. But a bigger part of it was that my brain didn’t work in that way, I found it difficult to think that far ahead. 

Cut to nearly 20 years later and it’s a completely different story. My problem now is that I can’t stop thinking ahead. 

 

Worry, Anxiety and Anxiety Disorders

In medical terms, anxiety disorders are a general term for disorders that can cause nervousness, fear, apprehension and worrying. Of course, a degree of worry and anxiety is a normal part of the human experience. However, when these thoughts and feelings become pervasive and all encompassing, it can be crippling. I don’t have an anxiety disorder, but I certainly have moments where I am nervous, apprehensive and worry. 

 

Worrying About the Future and Anxiety

It was during one of these times, when I was lying in bed at 2am worrying about whether I had left it too late to buy a house, that I started wondering why my brain had decided that this was a good time to evaluate my life choices.

I wasn’t even sure how these thoughts had popped into my head, but now that they had my tired sleep-deprived brain was scanning through all the possible outcomes that could result from my poor decision-making.

Maybe I would be forever destined to live in a tiny flat. Maybe my future unborn children would have to sleep in the bathtub. Maybe we should get rid of the bathtub altogether and convert the bathroom to a bedroom. But then where would the bathroom go? And so on. 

 

Are We Training our Brains to be Anxious ?

It was like a eureka moment when it hit me.

My brain as just doing what it had been programmed to do through my years of medical training. Process information, assess possible outcomes, evaluate worse case scenarios. It had become a well-oiled machine at connecting various dots to create a picture of the future. Except, my picture of the future wasn’t a neat paint by numbers masterpiece but an indecipherable splatter of mess.

 

We're not alone in our worry

I talked to other friends and realised that I wasn’t alone.

In fact, an increasing number of us find ourselves up at night, ruminating, thinking and feeling nervous. And perhaps it’s not surprising.

Of course, we have the usual culprits that are attributed to feeding our anxiety – social media, technology, having your head in a stranger’s armpit on your way to work. But maybe it’s also because many of us are paid to spend our days running through the near infinite combination of permutations that could result from any single decision. 

Of course, we could argue that this has always been the way. People have always had jobs where they’ve had to predict the impact of their decisions using whatever information was available to them.

However, I would argue that we now we have an ever-increasing volume of information to inform choice in all aspects of our lives.  The mere act of picking what to watch on Netflix or ordering take-out can be overwhelming when you begin to go through the choices and evaluate potential outcomes.  

 

Dealing with Worry, Stress and Anxiety

So what can we do? Understanding how to de-stress and worry less is a lifelong journey for most of us.

One of the things I’ve found really useful is to reduce choice and embrace routine in certain aspects of my life.  This does not come naturally - I love choice and hate feeling constricted. But embracing routine in some areas means that my mind wanders less and I find it easier to focus.

Small steps like eating the same thing for lunch or only exercising on certain days mean that I don’t expend needless brain power planning, thinking through options and rearranging my days.

It’s not particularly ground-breaking and frankly sounds quite boring. But sometimes, being a little bored is okay and even good for you.

 

References

Vrijkotte, T. G. M., van Doornen, L. J. P., & de Geus, E. J. C. (2000). Effects of Work Stress on Ambulatory Blood Pressure, Heart Rate, and Heart Rate Variability. Hypertension, 35(4), 880 LP-886. 

Kalimo, R., Tenkanen, L., Härmä, M., Poppius, E., & Heinsalmi, P. (2000). Job stress and sleep disorders: Findings from the Helsinki Heart Study. Stress and Health (Vol. 16). http://doi.org/10.1002/(SICI)1099-1700(200003)16:2<65::AID-SMI834>3.0.CO;2-8

Dallman, M. F., Pecoraro, N., Akana, S. F., La Fleur, S. E., Gomez, F., Houshyar, H., … Manalo, S. (2003). Chronic stress and obesity: a new view of “comfort food”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 100(20), 11696–701. http://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1934666100

 

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