Every era has its ups and downs — war, natural disasters, economic trouble, social problems and crime. But what distinguishes today from any other era is our instant access to these devastating events. Thanks to a slew of ever-amazing technological advances, people can “watch tragedy and disaster on [their] smart phone,” said John Tsilimparis, MFT, director of the Anxiety and Panic Disorder Center of Los Angeles and author of the forthcoming book Retraining Your Anxious Mind: A New Approach to the Art of Anxiety Management.
But always being in the know has a downside. In fact, the combination of safety-compromising events — 9/11, its upcoming 10th anniversary, terrorism, tsunamis, tornadoes, earthquakes, unemployment, dwindling economy — and 24/7 access can cause a kind of collective anxiety and helplessness, he said. (Interestingly, he’s noticed more people coming in with anxiety issues to his private practice and other facilities where he works.)
If you’re worried about the state of the world — or you’re struggling with anxiety in general — there are steps you can take. Tsilimparis discusses what fuels anxiety and how to overcome it.
For many people, anxiety comes from clinging to the illusion of control, Tsilimparis said. People think that they can control what happens in their country and with other people. They search for ways to control their environment to ensure safety and curtail anxiety. But the tighter you cling to the idea of controlling uncontrollable events, the greater your anxiety — because you inevitably fail.
Dualistic thinking — black-or-white, all-or-nothing thinking — also fuels anxiety: America is either safe or it isn’t; the economy is either swelling or sinking. There are no shades of gray, even though, as Tsilimparis said, few absolutes exist in life.
People with elevated anxiety also hold certain rigid beliefs about how they should live their lives, known as adhering to a “consensus reality,” or one-way thinking, he said. For instance, you might believe that by the time you’re 28, you should be married and have children. Or you might define happiness as owning your own home or success as making a six-figure salary.
What also drives anxiety is perfectionism — “you either succeed at 100 percent or fail at 97 percent” — and relying on others’ approval, Tsilimparis said. Looking for outside validation inevitably leaves people walking on eggshells and panicked over whether they’ve said the right thing or have done the right thing.
Solutions for Anxiety
First, it’s important to separate out the things you can control from the things you can’t. In other words, the motto your parents probably taught you is all too true: The only thing you have control over is yourself, Tsilimparis said. He admits that the statement is “trite and simplistic” but no doubt accurate.
If you can focus on the stressors in your life that you can control, you’ll end up feeling better about everything else. For instance, when clients come into Tsilimparis’s office with a freeway phobia (remember, he practices in L.A.), the last thing he treats is the actual phobia.
Instead, he helps them address “the little things in their lives they do have control over.” Why? Because anxiety is a shape-shifter. It doesn’t just make you fear freeways; it permeates other areas of your life. In other words, there are parallels between one’s freeway fears and how they lead their life in general.
Take the case of one of Tsilimparis’s clients. The client had been a caretaker his entire life, caring for his grandmother, who’d been in the Holocaust, and his mother who’d suffered abuse. He was terrified of driving on the freeway. He’d constantly focus on the other cars — and rarely on this own lane. The parallel? He also rarely focused on himself, a byproduct of being brought up in a family where his sole job was as caretaker. Tsilimparis worked with him on addressing his own needs and alleviating the stressors in his life that he could control.
The irony is that once you let go of wanting to control everything and focus on yourself, you gain control and your anxiety decreases. What also helps is acknowledging your belief system, which may be distorted. Tsilimparis suggested thinking of yourself as a movie director. Anxiety acts like tunnel vision, so you end up focusing on one thing. Instead, pull back the camera so you can see the whole picture. Adjusting your lens helps you “gain some perspective.”
It’s tremendously valuable for people with anxiety to notice their belief systems and then challenge them. Tsilimparis asks his clients to pay close attention to whether they’re seeking perfection, control or approval during the day.
The key is to “be reflective, not reactive,” Tsilimparis said. Reactivity breeds anxiety. If an anxiety-producing thought pops up, you might say, “There I go again, I’m about to go into illusion-of-control thinking, and I refuse to go there. I’m going to think differently.”
By disputing your beliefs, you can develop “new eyes.” Think of it as a swimming pool, Tsilimparis said. When you first jump into a pool, the water is freezing. The longer you stay in, the warmer it feels. But the water temperature, of course, never changed; just your perception did.
Here’s another example: The thought “I’m never going to be safe because terrorism is a real threat” might cause a surge in anxiety. Tsilimparis believes that no thought should go unchallenged. So a rational way to challenge this thought is by saying to yourself: I’m focusing on something that I have zero control over. This is the government’s job. So I’ll focus my energy and efforts on what I can control in my life, including my own job and being a good husband and father.”
There’s also nothing wrong with taking a break from the news, which Tsilimparis has suggested to some clients. Simply switch the channel or go TV-free for a few days.