5 Reasons We’ve Become Filled with Anxiety

According to a CDC survey released last month, anxiety levels in the US are, on average, three times higher than they were a year ago. To understand on a deeper level the roots of our anxiety in the current situation, let’s consider the uncertainty that has surged over the past six months in five distinct areas of our lives.  

The Sources of Your Anxiety 

All five of these sources of anxiety may not be present in your own life; alternatively, there may also be others in your unique situation. (In the case of my family, for instance, a recent source of anxiety is the wildfires about thirty miles from our home in southern California that have been emitting ashes that rain down on us—like a light snowstorm except that it’s dangerous to breathe in the flakes, compounding our cabin fever—for the past few weeks.) 

At the least, these five possible sources will hopefully help you regain your power over the anxiety-imbued unknown in your life. Each potential source emerges in a distinct dimension of our lives: physical (health), psychological, political, economic and social.  

At the physical level of personal health, we of course fear becoming infected by the virus. We fear death. The physical source of our anxiety doesn’t end there. We are also concerned about the health of our families. This anxiety accelerates when we have aging parents to whom the virus presents a higher risk.  

Psychologically, we fear what will happen to us if we become too isolated during the quarantine. If we have children who are unable to continue their education in person and are instead languishing at home behind their screens, we are concerned about their development.  

While we are aware that our children are still learning cognitively, we are also aware that they are missing out on the socioemotional development that, many argue (see the Canadian psychologist Susan Pinker’s book The Village Effect and my book Screened In: The Art of Living Free in the Digital Age), is more important for their development into well-rounded, productive members of our society. 

At the political level, in the US we are aware that an important election is right around the corner. Many other countries are similarly divided, thanks to the bipartisanship-inducing effects of social media, which have led to fatigue with this platform as a source of reading political content. Whether we live in the US, Mexico, the UK or Zimbabwe, we want to see our favored candidate or party in power, and we feel that only our party will steward a safe resolution of this public health crisis while the other party will only exacerbate it. 

Economically, we feel anxious about our jobs and providing for our families as bricks-and-mortar businesses fall like dominoes in the path of an intransigent virus that does not permit as frequent visits from their patrons. Meanwhile, technology-mediated companies have profited from this fallout, ushering in a two-tiered economy in which disparities between haves and have nots have widened to unprecedented levels. Integrating the political sources of our anxiety, many governments offer tepid responses to the needs of these damaged companies that were once the pillars of our communities. 

Adding to all of the above, the social dimension of our lives produces even more anxiety. Almost all of us watched an eight-minute-and-forty-six-second video of an innocent man being slowly murdered. We became collectively traumatized, and trauma only enhances anxiety. Why? Because our trauma—especially when it comes to the intractable, pernicious consequences of racism—is a continual, numbing reminder that we are unable to effectively resolve an issue so critical to our collective advancement. The murder of George Floyd was a painful reminder that Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream that is still poignantly unrealized—that racism and unprovoked violence, especially toward African-American men, still flourish in our society

Additionally, it’s become more challenging to get together with our family and friends in person, compounding a global loneliness epidemic that began long before the pandemic. This is an intractable problem, as anxiety enhances our need for affiliation with others—a need that is more difficult to satisfy given the social distancing measures necessary to keep this virus at bay.  

In fact, a whole raft of research indicates that when we feel isolated from others, our anxiety increases. For this reason, the German psychoanalyst Karen Horney defined anxiety as “being isolated and helpless in a potentially hostile world.” Sound familiar? It’s how a lot of people are feeling right about now. 

In all five of these areas of our lives, we desperately wish for change and are uncertain if we can bring it about. Among other reasons you may identify in your own life (e.g., an intractable health condition or spouse or boss—wait, is there a difference between the two?), for many these are the reasons anxiety has escalated to its current levels. 

No Way Out But Through  

Yet anxiety, believe it or not, inspires hope. The reason we feel anxiety is we still believe there is something we can do to ameliorate its cause. To reduce our anxiety, we can take these three steps. First, we must accept that we cannot change what has already transpired—e.g., the past trajectory of the pandemic, which includes the virus and the poor responses to it in the US and some other countries; past racism; and social isolation.  

Second, following the civil rights mantra, we can keep our “eyes on the prize” and develop a future vision of the better future we still believe in. Finally, we can develop present-moment strategies to produce change in all of these dimensions of our lives.  

Today, while facing the largest public health crisis of our lifetimes, this understanding of anxiety can help us work with others with whom we share compelling values to transform our anxiety into acceptance (of what has already occurred), ambition (fueled by the undying hope that you can create the better world you know is possible) and action (to transform your vision into reality). 

Do you understand the sources of your anxiety? Let us know about it in the comments.