I don't know about you, but I'm running into a lot of anxious people lately. Everyone's talking about the same things: The economy is tanking, workers are taking salary cuts (if they're lucky enough to still be employed), the idea of working well into our seventies is no longer a joke, and pistachios have replaced peanut butter as public enemy number one.
Should we be worried? Absolutely. But how much anxiety is too much? And what can we do to keep from worrying ourselves sick?
I mean this literally: Chronic, excessive anxiety can contribute to serious medical problems, including heart disease, depression, eating disorders, asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, and alcoholism. But we can't just banish anxiety from our lives; a certain amount of anxiety is not only not bad for us, but is absolutely necessary to our well-being and survival. The anxious twinge that tells you not to invest in a dubious real estate venture could save you a bundle, and the prickle of anxiety that makes you tell your teenager he's got to wear a helmet on his bicycle could save his life. To set out to eradicate anxiety from our lives would be as foolhardy as it would be unrealistic.
So how do we remain anxious enough to stay alive without getting so anxious that we're afraid to really live?
The answer is not to fortify ourselves against anxiety as if it were an enemy, but to approach it as we might a beloved but difficult parent: Terminating the relationship is out of the question, but figuring out how to get along better would sure make our lives (not to mention holiday dinners) a lot more pleasant.
And how do we do this? By understanding that anxiety isn't something that happens to us, but something with which we are actively engaged, something with which we have a relationship. The way you relate to your anxiety-by avoiding it, or placating it, or facing it down, or responding to it in any number of different ways-determines the role you allow anxiety to play in your life. Do you defer to your anxiety as you might to a bossy brother or sister? Or do you placate it as you might a volatile lover? Do you avoid your anxiety as you might an irritating coworker? Or do you confront it, albeit shakily, as you once did that creep in fifth grade who made fun of what you had in your lunchbox?
The more I thought about this, the more sense it made, and the more sense it made, the more I thought about it, which is how I came to write my new book One Less Thing to Worry About: Uncommon Wisdom for Coping with Common Anxieties. It hits the shelves this month, and it's packed with insights I've gleaned after thirty years as a therapist and advocate for people with anxiety disorders. And there's a section-The Ross Prescription-loaded with tips, tools, and techniques for identifying what sort of relationship you have with your anxiety, evaluating whether it's working for you, and, if it isn't, learning how to make the relationship better.
Learning to live with anxiety is like learning how to get along with the mothers, sisters, fathers, brothers, in-laws, friends, coworkers, supervisors, and assorted colorful and eccentric characters who make our lives worth living. It's a dynamic process, relentless, unpredictable, and pulsing with equal parts of strife and exhilaration. And the moment you understand that you have a living, breathing relationship with your anxiety-a relationship whose qualities and character are of your making-is the moment you free yourself from the tyranny of fear and assert your right to challenge, subdue, and even embrace it.