Twenty years ago, George Costanza’s dad screamed “Serenity now!” in an infamous episode of “Seinfeld.” If you’ve ever related to that sentiment, you’re not alone. A recent survey says that two-thirds of Americans are anxious about the future of our country. But it’s interesting to note that whether you look back 20 or 60 years, every generation dubs itself “the age of anxiety.”
The “age of anxiety” is seemingly eternal. In the ‘50s, “The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety” was written by the late philosopher Alan Watts. In 2009, “Hope in the Age of Anxiety” by Anthony Scioli and Henry B. Biller hit the bookshelves. And a tome that just had its 20-year anniversary? “Finding Serenity in the Age of Anxiety,” by Robert Gerzon.
I spoke with Gerzon, a writer and retired psychotherapist who practiced for 40 years, to find out why the age of anxiety seems never-ending, and if it’s possible for humans to become less anxious.
It might seem ludicrous to millennials that people back in the ‘50s could be living in an “age of anxiety.” What did they have to be anxious about? The sources of much anxiety today stems from something read on a smartphone or overheard on a 24-hour news channel, neither of which was possible back then. But Watts wrote about anxiety in a way that still feels current, and he foresaw technology as a potential problem: “The miracles of technology cause us to live in a hectic, clockwork world that does violence to human biology, enabling us to do nothing but pursue the future faster and faster.”
Granted, Watts didn’t discover the concept of anxiety in 1951, but the British philosopher did help convey Eastern philosophy to many Western audiences in his time.
“[Watts] was very much ahead of his time, as he was one of the few people who saw the negative aspects of science and technology on humans in the ‘50s and ‘60s,” says Gerzon. “He was aware of the need to get to a different level of consciousness.”
The world is very different in 2017, but one thing remains constant: many people experience anxiety. “Anxiety is built into our nervous system,” Gerzon notes. “It’s part of who we are. It’s an early warning signal that alerts us to both threats and opportunities.” Anxiety affects all humans, not just the ones who show it. Someone might have a high-powered job, exude confidence, and still suffer from anxiety. “The most well-adjusted seeming people are dealing with their own anxieties,” says Gerzon.
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It’s worth mentioning that anxiety can be a healthy part of life, as long as you bring awareness to the feeling and not denial, Gerzon says. But not all anxiety is the same. (Let’s put aside basic anxiety, where a person is concerned about having needs met like food and shelter.) Gerzon believes there are three major types:
1. Toxic anxiety
This encompasses everything from worry to panic attacks and paranoia. Certainly, Americans of all political affiliations suffered from toxic anxiety during the recent election year.
2. Natural anxiety
If you’ve ever driven on a snowy road and felt nervous, you’ve likely experienced this. Gerzon says it’s a good thing, as that uneasy feeling can help keep you alert.
3. Sacred anxiety
Ever find yourself laying in bed, eyes open at 3 a.m. with potentially unknowable questions swimming through your head? (Just me?) Gerzon says sacred anxiety is about “the big things in life.” It certainly can be stressful to think about “questions of meaning, purpose, and identity.”
Gerzon posits that since the Industrial Revolution, people have been feeling more and more anxious. In his new book “Human Earth Awakening,” Gerzon says it’s important for people to step back from our focus on “the anxiety of the day” and consider whether we’re evolving or devolving. “So much of modern life is making people less aware, less physically vital, less happy, and less healthy,” he says. “I think the fact that today’s generation feels like they’re dealing with more anxiety is very real. The rate of change has picked up immensely. It’s exponential now.”
When you’re forced to confront change in your life (and societal changes in general), that can lead to increased anxiety. “A lot of these changes have been driven by capitalism, technology, and the profit motive,” Gerzon explains. “They haven’t been driven by what’s good for human beings, and what helps children grow up to be happy and healthy adults. It’s a giant experiment we’re all a part of.”
Let’s assume Gerzon and everyone from philosophers to psychologists who’ve published books about “the age of anxiety” over the last 60 years have all been correct. That only provides a small amount of comfort. What steps can we take to alleviate ourselves of the stress caused by anxiety?
If you use your anxiety as a catalyst for positive change, it can be greatly beneficial. “Anxiety can help wake us up to reality,” Gerzon says. “If we face it head on, then we can channel it into personal growth. If we run from it by allowing ourselves to be distracted by all the many distractions the world offers us today, then we tend to get more numb and depressed as the years go by.“
The good news is that the choices we make can help us avoid this path. “The best thing people can do is choose what they expose themselves to more carefully and consciously,” he explains. “Unplug. Spend time meditating, walking in nature, or playing sports. When you have more of a balance in your life, it makes you grounded in the real world.” Gerzon notes that a modern cause of anxiety is the screens we surround ourselves with (TV, phones, tablets, computers), but we also do our relaxing it front of it as well. It’s easy to be distracted by our phones since they’re always around, but there are intuitive ways to stop checking it so frequently.
“The more anxious you are, the more you want to be distracted,” he says. “It’s a real challenge to stay aware.” While Watts passed away in 1973, his words from the ‘50s remain applicable forever. And if you believe Gerzon, the age of anxiety is alive and well. “Alan Watts would be shocked today if he saw how the age of anxiety has escalated,” he notes.
Here’s a friendly reminder that now is as good a time as any to take a walk.
The author of this post is an editorial contributor to Headspace. These are their views, experiences and results and theirs alone. This contributor was paid for their writing.