The 2-Minute Thought: Modern Anxiety and Purpose

A friend of mine who is a nurse told me that on election night her hospital saw a surge in patients coming to the ER with chest pain.  For some, the stress, suspense, and excitement or disappointment of election night became too much to handle.

The last few months, there have been plenty of stories about election stress and post-election stress.  They’ve had headlines like, “Do You Have Election Stress Disorder? (It’s A Real Thing)” and “People are so stressed by this election that the American Psychological Association has coping tips.”  People reported feeling tightness in their chests, exhaustion, disgust and fear.  And while it’s not hard to believe that ugly campaign rhetoric and endless fact-checking were winding people up and stressing them out, the reality is that many other things also wind us up and stress us out.  Generalized anxiety has become too much a part of modern life

More of us are well fed and live better, healthier lives than ever before, but the curiously modern malaise of anxiety seems to be on the rise.  Often it stems from uncertainty after a major change, overstimulation (of which we have plenty), or a disconnect between expectations and reality.    

David Brooks of The New York Times recently characterized two flavors of modern anxiety.  “The affluent,” he wrote, “often feel besieged by busyness and plagued by a daily excess of choices.  At the same time, there is a pervasive cosmic unease, the anxiety that they don’t quite understand the meaning of life, or have not surrendered to some all-encompassing commitment that would bring coherence and peace.”  The less well-off feel unrooted in a different way.  Stressed at having to navigate a system that feels like it’s rigged against them, they are ever-wary and often disconnected and mistrustful.

The Dalai Lama and Arthur Brooks have a somewhat different way of looking at our modern anxiety.  In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, they suggested that we’ve come to a point where too many of us fear we aren’t useful.  All humans need to be needed, they say, and “diligent work in the service of others” is what makes us thrive.   But “Feeling superfluous is a blow to the human spirit.  It leads to social isolation and emotional pain, and creates the conditions for negative emotions to take root.” 

There are no easy fixes for our modern anxiety.  The self-help type of suggestions put forth aren’t earth-shattering but are good things to do anyway: take care of your health, eat well, exercise, cut out the overstimulation of news and social media, go for a walk in the woods, read a book, become involved in your community, enjoy time with the people who are important to you, offer service. . .

David Brooks suggests that direct action can get us out of our own heads and help us avoid spiraling into a narcissistic pool. 

But perhaps the most wonderful words come from the Dalai Lama and Arthur Brooks who say, ”The first answer is not systematic.  It is personal.  Everyone has something valuable to share.  We should start each day by consciously asking ourselves, ‘What can I do today to appreciate the gifts that others offer me?’”

Please note: The 2-Minute Thought will be on holiday on November 24 and return on December 1.  Give thanks and enjoy Thanksgiving.