Could the worries of a troubled world be taking a toll on your life? It’s one thing to be anxious about personal and family matters—Will my medical test come back positive? How will I pay my bills? Will my troubled son ever find his way? We all know that living with such anxieties can hurt our health and happiness.
Recently, however, many of us have been feeling extreme stress over far less personal problems—disturbing national and global developments that repeatedly draw our attention. And this stress, while perhaps rooted in events far from home, still can hit home in severely damaging ways—it can hurt our sleep and our health…and even shorten our lives.
Examples: Global terrorism increasingly feels like an omnipresent danger. US politics, as reflected in the presidential contest, has devolved in a way that triggers extreme emotions, including anger, fear and even hatred. Financial markets worldwide have become much more volatile, sparking fears of economic upheaval. Confrontations involving police have fueled racial tensions. Refugee crises around the world show us horrific suffering. The threat of nuclear proliferation and attack seem reignited as Iran and North Korea beat their chests. The Zika virus and, before it, the Ebola virus rise up as health threats. And never-ending cyber attacks threaten our privacy and security.
But are the dangers any more extreme than in the past, and must they disrupt our daily lives? Here’s why global and national problems can cause anxiety disproportionate to their true risk—and how to stop these anxieties from standing in the way of living a calm and happy life…
UNDERSTANDING GLOBAL ANXIETY
The human mind is very good at providing warnings about risks. Unfortunately, it can stumble when it comes to evaluating and prioritizing those risks. For example, we tend to overestimate risks when…
We hear about them frequently. The more often someone hears about a threat, the more likely that person is to conclude that the threat must be substantial. This translates into out-of-proportion anxieties about global and national threats that are discussed endlessly in the media.
The images are hard to forget. Troubling events often are accompanied by shocking pictures and/or video—including such recent images as shootings, beheadings and dead bodies—that can trigger deep emotional responses.
We don’t know what we can do to stop the threat. Worried about your family’s finances? There’s probably something you can do to mitigate the risks and ease your fears, such as economizing, adjusting your investment portfolio and/or earning additional income. But there is little you can do to reduce global dangers or to head off a recession or a market meltdown.
The threats are relatively new. The longer a threat is around, the more comfortable people grow with it. Heart disease and cancer have always been around, so people tend not to consider them pressing dangers—even though they kill far more Americans than terrorism does.
We perceive malicious intent. People tend to overestimate risks related to forces that seem to want to cause them harm. That’s another reason we might worry more about ISIS or North Korea than about a car accident—there is no “bad guy” trying to crash our car.
CONTROLLING GLOBAL ANXIETY
An important step in overcoming anxiety is to realize which problems actually are responsible for your worries. It can be especially difficult to pinpoint the source of anxiety when global problems are to blame because these problems are far removed from daily life.
What to do: Consciously monitor your emotions throughout the day. When you experience moments of anxiety, anger or sadness, jot down what you are doing, reading, discussing or thinking. Within a few days, you should see trends appearing.
Example: I often find myself feeling anxious when I think about one of the candidates who might win the presidential election.
If you discover that national or global problems cause you anxiety…
Carefully weigh the odds that what you fear actually will turn into reality. If your anxieties revolve around terrorism, for example, your specific worry likely is that you or someone you love will be killed in an attack. If your anxieties revolve around an economic meltdown, your specific worry might be that you will lose your job and not be able to find a new one or that your retirement savings will disappear. As a next step, estimate the chance that this event actually will occur on a scale of 0% to 100%.
To do this, consider what evidence you really have that the risk is great—and keep in mind that people experiencing anxiety often inflate risks. If you fear not being able to find work, for example, consider that three of every four Americans in the labor force remained employed even at the deepest depths of the Great Depression. You may be surprised to find that the risk of your feared event occurring is not quite as high as you had automatically assumed.
Next, think of a person you know and respect who is not especially concerned about this particular national or global worry, and imagine how that person would estimate your risk on the same 0% to 100% scale. Now list some reasons why your worry will not come true. Ordinarily you might struggle to list reasons why something you fear will not come true—but this should become a bit easier after you take a moment to see things from the perspective of someone who sees little risk. Refer to this list when you experience anxiety on the subject in the future—it could help calm your fears.
Determine what productive action, if any, you can take. You might not be able to stop a global threat, but there may be something you can do to stand in opposition to it…or to minimize the damage that it will do to you should it occur. Taking this step should ease your anxiety by helping you regain some sense of control. Make a list of potential productive actions, and refer to this list whenever your anxieties arise.
Example: If there is a political candidate who frightens you, you could campaign for or make donations to that candidate’s opponent. If terrorism frightens you, you could attend a rally for a cause that terrorists would despise—perhaps something related to religious freedom or equal rights.
Schedule daily time to confront this concern. Believe it or not, if you cannot stop yourself from worrying about an issue, you still can minimize the impact that the issue has on your life by scheduling a specific time to worry—it actually works. To do this, select a 20-minute window each day during which you are “allowed” to worry about the troubling topic. If you catch yourself experiencing anxiety about it at other times, reassure yourself that you will sort through these thoughts during the designated worry time, and then turn your attention back to something else. But don’t just sit around worrying during these 20 minutes. Use at least some of this time to review the other steps described here.
Reduce your exposure to negative news, negative political commentary and negative social-media interactions. If something chronically discussed on the TV news, on the radio or in newspapers causes you anxiety, reduce your time spent engaging with these media outlets and do something more calming instead.
Consider the evidence that the US and the world actually are improving. If you think that the US and the world are headed in the wrong direction, you’re not alone—polls suggest that the majority of Americans would agree. But despite all the bad news we encounter, evidence suggests quite the opposite…
•Violent crimes are in the news every day—but what the news rarely mentions is that the violent-crime rate in the US actually is very low by historical standards. For example, the per-capita homicide rate has fallen by more than 50% in the past 25 years.
•Horrible diseases such as Zika and Ebola are frequently in the news, too—but Americans are living longer, healthier lives.
•Authoritarian regimes such as North Korea and ISIS are in the news, as is the bloody conflict in Syria—but the world is, overall, more democratic than ever…and by historical standards, global war deaths per capita have been very low for the past quarter century.