Why are so many Americans plagued with anxiety symptoms? Why are the statistics of anxiety so much higher in America compared to worldwide figures?
My hypothesis is that here in America, we glamorize busyness. We put such an emphasis on living to work instead of working to live. It is completely countercultural to many other places in the world, where they value time spent with friends and family over time spent at work making money.
Americans are famous for vacationing far less than our global counterparts, and allowing millions of dollars per year in vacation time to go unused. Additionally, we are a very fast-paced culture in which we value on-demand services, fast food, same-day delivery, etc. The idea of waiting or being still is just not in our nature.
Could this be one of the reasons why we are more prone to anxiety than other people throughout the world?
Consequences of Anxiety Symptoms
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) has this to say about the “Functional Consequences of Generalized Anxiety Disorder”:
“Excessive worrying impairs the individual’s capacity to do things quickly and efficiently, whether at home or at work. The worrying takes time and energy; the associated symptoms of muscle tension and feeling keyed up or on edge, tiredness, difficulty concentrating, and disturbed sleep contribute to the impairment.
Importantly, the excessive worrying may impair the ability of individuals with generalized anxiety disorder to encourage confidence in their children. Generalized Anxiety Disorder accounts for 110 million disability days per annum in the U.S. population.” (pg. 225)
Anxiety Symptoms: Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
With the majority of Americans entering treatment for anxiety, let’s take a look at what the DSM-5 (pg. 222) states are the anxiety symptoms to look for in Generalized Anxiety Disorder:
1. Excessive anxiety and worry (apprehensive expectation), occurring more days than not for at least 6 months, about a number of events or activities (such as work or school performance).
2. The individual finds it difficult to control the worry.
3. The anxiety and worry are associated with three (or more) of the following six symptoms (with at least some symptoms having been presents for more days than not for the past 6 months):
Restlessness or feeling keyed up or on edge
Being easily fatigued
Difficulty concentrating or mind going blank
Sleep disturbance (difficulty falling or staying asleep, or restless, unsatisfying sleep)
4. The anxiety, worry, or physical symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.
5. The disturbance is not attributable to the physiological effects of a substance or other medical condition.
6. The disturbance is not better explained by another mental disorder
Who among us would not meet that above criteria? Probably very few of us! We are all prone to worry and be fearful of what could, should, or would happen – but it is productive to do so?
In the Scriptures, Jesus said in the Gospel of Matthew:
“Therefore I tell you, stop being perpetually uneasy (anxious and worried) about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink; or about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life greater (in quality) than food, and the body (far above and more excellent) than clothing?
Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap, nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father keeps feeding them. Are you not worth much more than they?” – Matthew 6:25-26, AMP
I love the imagery that Jesus is painting for us in the above passage. Slow down for a moment and really ponder this – when was the last time you saw a bird with an ulcer? They do not store up their food days in advance in their nests or dwelling places – rather, they know that their Creator is faithful to supply new food for them each and every morning as they greet the day.
The birds do not worry and fret over their needs being met. God is faithful to them and gives them exactly what they need to survive each day. And yet, God says to us, “Are you not worth much more than they?”
God provides today’s grace – today. We do not receive tomorrow’s grace until tomorrow comes around. What if the Lord calls us home to be with Him tonight, and we have spent our entire last day on earth worrying about tomorrow?! Can you imagine? Because that’s exactly what most of us do, and the reality is that we truly do not know when our last day here will be.
Jesus goes on in Matthew to say,
“So do not worry or be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will have worries and anxieties of its own. Sufficient for each day is its own trouble.” – Matthew 6:34, AMP
I know that it is easier said than done to stop worrying. If it was easy, the majority of therapists in America wouldn’t be sitting across from people struggling with anxiety. And because we, too, are human, even your therapists have the tendency to worry from time to time.
Truly, the ability to keep from worrying must be supernatural, if it is our natural inclination to worry. This means that we must seek God and tap into His peace that “transcends all understanding” if we are to obtain any of that heavenly peace down here on earth.
However, as an integrative therapist, I believe that we can integrate our faith with skills and techniques mankind has honed over time, in order to bring about the most fruit. God is pretty big on the combination of pairing our faith in Him with our own works (see the book of James).
We are to do as much as we can in our own strength, while asking the Lord to take us the rest of the way. When we are dependent upon God to see us through to completion, then He receives all of the glory and the praise for any victory that is achieved.
The truth is, we can accomplish much, but God can accomplish all that we cannot. Starting from a place of surrender and vulnerability – acknowledging that we need help – opens up the door for the Wonderful Counselor and the Prince of Peace to use whatever we have sown and multiply it as only He can.
If then it requires that we do some legwork and actually put forth some effort into growing and changing our lives, how exactly do we go about combatting anxiety that comes so naturally to us in our culture?
The Difference Between Fear and Anxiety Symptoms
Nationally Certified Counselor Tanya J. Peterson authored one of my favorite go-to workbooks for helping with anxiety symptoms, and I am very happy to say that several of my clients have benefited from her work.
In The Mindfulness Workbook for Anxiety (2018, pg. 2), she offers a helpful outline that demonstrates the difference between fear versus anxiety.
She puts it like this:
Fear: Present-focused; the source of fear is happening now.
Anxiety: Past or future-focused; the worry centers on thoughts about what already happened or what might happen.
Fear: Rational; it’s a response to a threat in the outside world. Maybe your neighbor’s angry dog is charging at you. Your body’s fear response – fight, flight, or freeze – reaction kicks in to help keep yourself safe.
Anxiety: Irrational; nothing directly tangible in the outside world is overtly threatening you right now. You might be anxious that an angry dog somewhere will come charging at you, but there isn’t anything real to address in the present moment.
Fear: The object of fear is real and specific.
Anxiety: The object of anxiety feels real but is vague.
Fear: Because the object of the fear is real, it’s something that can be confronted. Objective measures can be taken to address it. You can choose to take a different route than that of the angry dog’s path, you can speak with your neighbor about the dog, or you can observe the dog and learn that its bark is worse than its bite.
Anxiety: Anxiety doesn’t feel fabricated – the fear and worry you experience are real. But with anxiety, there’s nothing concrete you can do to alleviate your distress because anxiety deals in hypotheticals. Anxiety over the possibility of being attacked by some dog somewhere is difficult to address because the threat is theoretical.
Fear: The object of fear is external.
Anxiety: The object of anxiety is internal, an idea, feeling, or thought. It keeps you trapped in your own mind, which can be worse than the angry dog.
Because we can now determine that anxiety does not live in the present moment of reality – rather, we allow our mind to travel back in time or into the future to bring a concern into the present moment where it does not belong – what ought we to do in response?
The Practice of Mindfulness
I love how Dr. Marsha Linehan from the University of Washington and creator of Dialectical Behavior Therapy has said it in one of her instructional videos; we simply notice that our mind has gone for a walk, and say to ourselves “I think I’ll come back now.” And we do this as many times as necessary until we retrain our brain to stay in the present moment.
This is called the practice of mindfulness. Not mindlessness – rather, mindfulness. We are taking control of our mind and telling it where to go. Now, because our mind will run rampant on us, it will take constant redirection on our part (remember the faith + works spiel from above?)
Mindfulness is a skill that we must practice. We invite all five of our senses into the current moment and resolve to be in that moment – not outside of the moment – not into tomorrow, or three weeks from now, or in the should’ve, could’ve, would’ve thoughts of the past – we are being intentional about just being in the present moment and experiencing the reality that God has given us to currently experience.
One way of enhancing the present moment and drawing our full attention to it, is by inviting all of our five senses into the moment – what do we see? Hear? Feel? Smell? Taste? This will help ground us to the current, present moment of reality.
If we notice anxiety creeping in, we can ask ourselves, “What is the threat?” In order to answer that in a way that makes a difference for us, we will need to be able to reach the logical part of our brain that can be rational and less emotional.
The problem with that?
Typically, when we have given the message to our brain that we are in survival mode, our body has flooded our brain with chemicals that will impair our ability to reach logic (and also empathy) – so we will need to “unflood” our brain if we are to start looking at the present moment in an objective manner versus a subjective one.
Breathing Techniques for Overcoming Anxiety Symptoms
How do we get these survival chemicals in our brain to retreat? By telling our body we are not actually in danger. We do this by breathing. It almost sounds too simple, doesn’t it?
But think about the brilliance of God in this – He knows we are prone to worry, and He has given us an all-natural, infinite supply of anti-anxiety medication that we can access from anywhere in the world – in the form of oxygen.
Consider this – when we have time to breathe deeply, we are obviously not in danger or survival mode. Most of us just take short little breaths to get us from point A to point B, and we do not regularly take deep, diaphragmatic breaths that fill us with oxygen.
When we are in survival mode, we will not have time for these deep breaths, because we will be relying on survival chemicals and short pockets of breath to get us through. However, when we breathe deeply, we are telling our body, “Look, I am okay. I am safe. In this moment, here and now, I am fine. I have time to breathe, see?”
Practicing mindfulness and breathing techniques is a great launching pad to combatting anxiety. Reminding ourselves of God’s faithfulness and His ability to control all that we cannot control is another powerful practice.
Christian Counseling for Anxiety
There are many more skills and practices that can be implemented to help you turn down the volume on anxiety, and turn up the volume on peace and gratitude.
Contact a Seattle Christian counselor today so that we can help equip you with the “works” you can do to minimize anxiety in your life, while supporting your faith to invite God to complete all that you cannot do in your own strength.
“Rush Hour,” courtesy of Karen Lau, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Freeway,” courtesy of Tom Grimbert, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Drop,” courtesy of Levi Xu, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Enjoy the Little Things,” courtesy of Brigitte Tohm, unsplash.com, CC0 License