Stella O’Malley discusses why we feel more anxious, stressed and overwhelmed, and what we can do about it
Have a look at the statistics in the list below:
-About one in five people experience a mental health issue in any given year.
-Anxiety disorder is the most common mental illness in Ireland, Britain and the US.
-Roughly 40 million adults, 18.1% of the population of the US, have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.
-With the exception of PTSD, women are twice as likely as men to suffer from anxiety disorders.
-Anxiety disorders are highly treatable, yet only approximately 36.9% of those suffering receive treatment.
-Anxiety is the biggest issue facing young Irish adults today.
-There has been a 1,200% increase in diagnoses of anxiety since 1980.
-More than one in ten people are likely to have a ‘disabling anxiety disorder’ at some stage in their lives.
-At present 40% of disability worldwide is due to depression and anxiety.
Prof. Jim Lucey of St Patrick’s Hospital has said that we are “living in an age of anxiety”. Notwithstanding the fact that professionals have become better at diagnosing and that our normal and natural existential worries are now being clinically diagnosed as mental health disorders, the fact remains that higher numbers are experiencing anxiety.
Although there are many and varied explanations, psychologists, psychiatrists and researchers broadly agree that it is mostly our toxic lifestyle that is making us sick.
Athough it is undoubtedly important to ascertain how we are all more anxious, it is also important to explore why we are more anxious so that we can reconfigure our stress-inducing lifestyles.
Who’s getting anxious?
Well, we’re all getting more anxious, but some are getting more anxious than others. Anxiety is an affliction that is heavily influenced by gender, age and class.
There has been a 70% increase in depression and anxiety among teenagers over the past 25 years in the UK. Record numbers of third-level students are seeking help for challenges to their mental health and, with 40% of Irish students seeking counselling for anxiety, it is the single biggest issue of concern among the demographic. Over the last decade there has been a 68% rise in the number of girls hospitalised owing to anxiety and depression-related self-harm. A UK government report in 2016 suggested that more middle-class children were reporting anxiety than any other demographic.
Research from the University of Cambridge shows that adults under 35 are more prone to experiencing anxiety attacks and women are almost twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders.
The author of the study, Oliva Remes, suggested that women could be more anxious because of a spike in female progesterone and oestrogen levels, which influence our moods and create a heightened sense of responsibility.
However, as the writer Megan Nolan – herself a sufferer – pointed out: “From one perspective, it’s unsurprising that women experience so much anxiety. We are socially encouraged to be fearful, to present ourselves as vulnerable, and are encouraged not to be strident and aggressive. Given the expectation that we act as emotional beings, it may be easier for us to confess to the fear and dread that characterise anxiety.”
Many, many factors play a part in the rising tide of people seeking support to help them deal with their anxiety – lack of resilience, problem-solving skills and coping mechanisms to handle normal life challenges are most often highlighted by mental health professionals as elements that contribute to the rise of anxiety among young people today. However, the most common reason offered is usually stress: our busy, perfectionistic and materialistic lifestyles are the key factor in all this emotional distress.
The disease of being busy
I don’t consider myself a naturally anxious person but it seems anxiety is touching almost everybody these days and, just like almost everyone else, I too have noticed that now, more than ever before, I find myself becoming overwhelmed by anxiety and panic about how much ‘stuff’ I have to do every day. And the latest research suggests that most of us are feeling as I do.
When we look at the symptoms of anxiety – racing thoughts, panic, uneasiness, sleep problems, heart palpitations, shortness of breath and being unable to stay calm or still – we can see how our fast culture is feeding this disorder.
Doing too much is a sure-fire path to anxiety; it overworks the brain and it makes it more likely that our emotional brain will be triggered.
Too many people are trying – and failing – to do too much and the upshot of all this effort is an epidemic of stress and anxiety.
The general consensus seems to be that if we could manage our time effectively we would win the game. But the truth is that the game is unwinnable; there will always be more to do and although it’s possible to stay on the treadmill and squash everything in, it is usually much more important to learn how to manage your life so that you don’t become a victim of our busy culture.
Often difficulties with time management are rooted in a mismatch between what you expect of yourself and what you actually get done in the time allotted. Can you take the pressure off yourself by lowering your expectations? Can you begin to factor extra time into your day so that you aren’t always feeling that you’re behind schedule?
Paul Roberts pointed out in his polemical The Impulse Society: What’s Wrong with Getting What We Want?: “An economy reoriented to give us what we want, it turns out, isn’t the best for delivering what we need. The more efficient we have got at gratifying individual desire, the worse we have become at satisfying other, longer-term social necessities.”
If we look at how the interior architecture of our homes has changed in recent years we can see how our so-called needs have moved far beyond anything near a need and instead look very like the maddened whims of a crazed oligarch.
In the 1980s most people would have been proud to own a house with a garden. The cladding, number of rooms and extra additions might have been a feather in your cap, but most ordinary people weren’t prepared to kill themselves working for these extras.
This attitude has changed, though, and over time it has now become all about the trimmings – the necessities are assumed and the extras are where it’s at.
In the 1990s, conservatories became a desirable addition to our houses, so many people took out loans and worked harder in their bid to build one. We now know that they are often the most underused and difficult to heat room in the house. In the early noughties there was a marked trend for outside decking, patio heating and even outdoor jacuzzis.
Now, in 2018, the new trophy home is all about bi-folding sliding French doors to create the ‘inside outside’ feel. Not only that, but random additions such as spacious walk-in wardrobes, overhead rainfall showers and handless push-and-glide drawers are suddenly considered key attractions among prospective house buyers.
Kitchens are now so luxurious that we have moved far beyond the ubiquitous kitchen island to enjoy double ovens, steam ovens and warming drawers.
But we are paying for all this – and in more ways than one – because the net result of all this extra fabulousness is that many of us are becoming stressed and anxious by working too hard to fund a needlessly materialistic life.
Curing yourself of the ‘busy disease’
Let’s look at a few tweaks you can make to free yourself from the disease of being busy.
Make a list of what you need to do less of and what you would like to do more of. Identify days of the week and times of the day that can be safeguarded for these activities.
l Time on social media – limit to 6 am–7am and 6 pm–7pm.
l Answering emails – limit to twice a day – once in the morning and once in the evening.
l Working – can you ask for reduced hours?
l Hanging out with friends – be proactive and ring-fence specific days to meet friends.
l Pottering in the house – ring-fence Sundays as a pyjama-and-potter day.
l Having baths – declare a weekly bath night, just for you.
Trying to control the uncontrollable
Permanent jobs are on the decline, mortgages and house ownership are beyond many people’s reach and the net result is a feeling of impermanence and anxiety – nothing feels solid and everything is movable. This triggers our brains to seek some form of certainty in an increasingly uncertain world.
This is why you might find yourself disregarding the impossible problem of buying your own home and instead suddenly fixate on some smaller problem that seems much more manageable, such as your personal grooming or your social media profile.
Anything that will provide a quick hit of feeling on top of things can seem attractive and calming in comparison to the vast problem of managing a future career or buying your own home.
But of course that’s a lie – these are only distracting and shallow hits for our ego – the true pathway to calm is to learn to live with uncertainty.
This is an edited extract from psychotherapist Stella O’Malley’s newest book Fragile. She is also the author of Bully-Proof Kids and Cotton-Wool Kids. Published by Gill Books, price €16.99.