We all have many “wants” in life – but most of us share one simple “want” in common: Happiness.
It’s a lifetime quest for many, especially here in the United States. Americans, ironically, number among the most anxious people in the world. We tend to view happiness as an art, the result of luck or sheer willpower. Meanwhile, many of us live with an angry lion perched right outside our door.
Anxiety may be easier to spot in others. When it comes to ourselves, we may chock it up to insomnia, irritability or poor health. But it’s important to know that about 1 in every 35 people in the United States experiences generalized anxiety, according to annual diagnosis rates.
That’s a lot of unnecessary suffering, and it’s also important to know that there is nothing wrong with you if you do live with anxiety.
Anxiety is a normal, primal human response. It’s an instinct that kept our ancestors safe from predators and empowered them as they protected the most vulnerable members of their families.
We’ve come a long way since then, but our brains and our bodies don’t know the difference. Modern-day life can leave you feeling as if that angry lion is perpetually ready to pounce. Today, we may not experience that as conscious fear. We’re more likely to describe it as stress, nervousness, embarrassment, poor planning skills, emotional pain, obsessive thoughts, pounding heart, headaches, sweating, difficulty swallowing, muscle tension, persistent worry, an inability to relax or trouble sleeping.
Few people experience all of the above. But for many of us, the lion is just outside the door when it comes to work, health, finances, marriage or our children.
While we know the ancient origins of anxiety, the reasons we experience it today are very individualistic but rather straightforward. Genetics, childhood experiences and traumatic events can each lead to anxiety – in the moment – or later in life. For some people, one factor is enough to trigger anxiety. For others, it may be all three.
Of course, we all know people who are seemingly immune to anxiety, regardless of life circumstances. We admire their emotional strength and society holds them up as heroes. Because of that, many of us who live with anxiety instead deny it even to ourselves – or live with it in shame and in secret.
There is an option: Anxiety is highly treatable. Among the first steps are to recognize it, stop resisting it and accept it – to accept ourselves.
You are not to blame for how you feel. Our lives truly are increasingly chaotic and demanding, with Americans working longer hours than ever in competitive atmospheres that can destroy confidence. Do you have family members who deal with nervousness and anxiety? That could be an indication of a family history. And of course, if you experienced trauma and did not have the opportunity to deal with it, it may be dealing with you.
Research has found that therapy is the most effective solution to anxiety because it goes beyond treating the symptoms and identifies the causes. It is tailored to the individual and comes with lifelong benefits: building coping and problem-solving skills, finding balance, developing relaxation techniques – and it is achieved in a supportive and accepting environment.
As a therapist, I have treated anxiety for decades and have found that a genuine, warm, collaborative atmosphere results in a sense of empowerment, clarity and a path forward. It is a privilege to be invited into someone’s process of healing and change – and together – learn what anxiety is saying to us and what it has to teach us.
Don’t let that angry lion pace outside your door. You have the power to send it away and to live a productive, anxiety-free life – a life you can describe, quite simply, as “happy.”
Sharon Nelson, LCSW