In any given year approximately 40 million Americans will suffer from a debilitating encounter with anxiety. Over the course of your lifetime, there’s a 25% chance you’ll experience a diagnosable anxiety disorder. This is such a staggering rate of affliction. It appears we’ve adapted to a new norm—one of mass disquiet. We have become habituated to—and normalized—an epidemic of anxiety.
If 40 million people fell suddenly ill, The Center for Disease Control would be working overtime to find both the cause and the cure. As a culture, we only look superficially into the cause of anxiety and focus more on the treatment—typically management through medication. We need to do much better. As a practicing psychotherapist, I’ve been looking at why we are suffering in this way. It’s time we disrupt our complacency around our victimhood.
Stress is normal in our hurried lives. We can look at stress as a byproduct of our adapting to the challenges that confront us. Stress is the result of our deeper engagement with life that can lead to growth, new learning and productivity. But when stress turns into distress it impedes our ability to live well, to live joyfully. Distress calcifies into anxiety. So, the question is: why do we suffer from this avalanche of anxiety? Here’s what I’ve learned.
Anxiety— at its source— is due to our relationship with our thoughts. In particular these are the thoughts which are perpetually seeking certainty. We want to know what the future will bring, and what the consequences of our decisions will be. But that future is of course unknowable. And so, we become anxious as we try to ward off the unknown. This results in our not being in the flow of life as we try to hold back the future. Ask yourself, “What causes me distress and anxiety?” Does it have something to do with your uncertainty about the future, your fear around decision-making?
I had been working with a middle-aged woman who came to see around her anxiety regarding her future. She had been unhappily married for quite some time and shared that she and her husband had been unsuccessful in marital therapy. They had grown apart, were contentious and had little in common. She felt that her marriage was a drag on her life. Given that she had no children and was financially independent I inquired why she was opting to stay married. She said, “I don’t know who I’d be as a divorced woman.”
There it was. Her fear around the unknown—which offered her possible relief and new possibilities—kept her imprisoned with anxiety. She was actually choosing to stay miserably in the known rather than face the uncertainty of a different path—one that might have brought her joy. The question, “Who would I be?” froze her with fear.
We invite uncertainty into many aspects of our lives. We enjoy watching sports and movies because of the thrill of not knowing. But in our personal lives we become choked by predictability and certainty. Seeking predictability stunts our relationships, our curiosity and our greater engagement with life.
So how did we become so attached to needing to know the future in advance? I track the cause to the great 17th century scientist Isaac Newton. He instructed that if we had sufficient information—in today’s jargon we might call that data—we could reasonably predict the future. This became known as determinism. And we have become addicted to this way of thinking.
Determinism has benefited us in many ways, but at the extreme it’s led to much pathology. We live life as though we were playing a chess match. We sit back and calculate our next move. We might fret over whether our decision will be a “mistake.” We slice and dice and analyze the possible consequences of our decisions and we get frozen. We don’t move forward as this straitjacket of fear blocks our flow of life. If you feel anxious around decision making, you’re likely addicted to seeking predictability.
Here’s the good news! It turns out we’ve been living from the wrong game plan. Over the last hundred years quantum physics has revealed an astonishingly different picture of reality. Unlike Newton’s determinism, reality appears to be thoroughly uncertain and that’s actually good news. It seems that nothing is fixed or inert. The universe appears to be perpetually flowing and bubbling with potentiality, a virtual sea of possibilities.
We too can join into that new worldview. When we learn to reframe our relationship with uncertainty, we invite in new possibilities. Remember that what you resist you make more formidable. Paradoxically if you choose to welcome uncertainty it becomes your ally. When we welcome uncertainty and literally embrace it, we are in movement, joining in the flow of the universe. We are then able to navigate our life as it unfolds, in real time.
Think of it this way: Uncertainty = Possibility. If reality is uncertain and we continue to demand certainty we will dysfunction and anxiety will be the result. To embrace uncertainty, we must change our relationship with our thoughts. Try to notice your thoughts. What are they telling you? If you see your thoughts trying to predict the future, release the thought. It’s just a thought, you don’t need to become that thought. “In the nanosecond before your next thought, you exist in a state of pure potential.”
When you free yourself from the torrent of addictive thoughts seeking certainty, you join in the flow of your life and anxiety retreats. It turns out that the epidemic of anxiety is primarily due to living from an outmoded game plan for life. It’s time to embrace what we’ve been resisting and make uncertainty your ally. Uncertainty can become the wind in the sail of our change process.