A discussion about worrying and anxiety on a recent talk show pointed out an interesting paradox. Most folks reading this article are healthier, safer, and wealthier than people have been at any time in the world’s history, and yet research indicates a significant increase in worrying and anxiety problems in relatively affluent populations. Since excessive worrying can lead to a number of other problems including loss of sleep, appetite disturbance, irritability, difficulty concentrating, and a steady erosion of self-esteem, it would be good to know how we might reverse this unhappy trend.
Though it may be true that we are safer, healthier, and generally better off than at any time in history, we are also more rushed, more hurried. With advances in communication and transportation, we can do more in a single day than would have been imaginable in the past. And because we can do more, we seem to want to, or to feel that we should. With the proliferation of email, voice mail, cell phones, and other devices, we tend to expect a quicker response from others, and we believe that others expect a quicker response from us. With a lot more happening in each of our lives, the traffic is worse, and we find ourselves jammed up on the highways, both paved and electronic, and impatient with the length of our commute and the speed of our internet connection!!
What has this got to do with worrying?
Though our technology has evolved very rapidly in the last 50 years, our brains have not (probably a good thing). The brain of today is the same brain our ancestors used to survive in dangerous and primitive conditions 30,000 years ago, and it does not fully distinguish between hurrying and worrying. Worrying is a mental and physical state in which we are alert to danger, anticipating threats, experiencing fear, and preparing to RUN!! Running was and still is the best strategy for many dangers of life under primitive conditions. But it is not necessarily the best response for modern threats and insecurities. Each of us is born with the capacity for fear, the emotion that prepares us to run, but we are not born with the specific knowledge of what is dangerous. [A baby normally recoils from loud noises, but will not automatically know enough to fear a poisonous snake or a hot stove. This has to be learned.] Because danger and fear are neurologically associated with running (hurrying), there is a reciprocal tendency to associate hurrying with fear. As a result of this association, the more hurried we are, the greater the tendency to expect danger. We are inclined to confuse urgency with emergency, and deadlines with deadly threats. Constant hurrying generates a steady trickle of adrenalin, keeping us alert to danger and ready to run, keeping us worrying.