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Ken Sanders got into his car and slumped into the driver’s seat with a heavy sigh.
The Dunellen, New Jersey, resident had an hour’s commute to work ahead of him — 45 minutes if he was lucky. But as he got behind the wheel of his black BMW, he felt the panic begin.
His mind raced through all the possible scenarios: a large van pulls into the busy freeway to merge, forcing him to swerve and lose control. A car speeding through an intersection runs a red light and crashes into him.
Sanders could feel his chest tightening, his body shaking, his heart pounding – as if he had just collided with that speeding car. In reality, he was still sitting in the driveway with the engine off, blanking the steering wheel because of the mental illness he had been dealing with for decades.
Sanders, 63, has struggled with various versions of her anxiety disorder for most of her life. Research shows that it is not alone.
The prevalence of anxiety has increased in the United States in recent years, affecting more than a third of adults each year. Anxiety is among the most common mental illnesses in the country.
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But despite the popular assumption that diagnosis and treatment should go hand in hand, mental health experts say that anxiety is not in itself a problem. It is inherent in humans to feel danger or worry about consequences. People don’t need to get rid of anxiety, experts say, but rather, they need to learn to live with it.
“We bought into a false perspective about anxiety that you never had,” said David Rosmarin, the founder of the Center for Anxiety. “We think of low levels of anxiety as a disease, a disorder.”
Rosmarin is among a growing number of anxiety experts who have a different take: “We have to stop getting rid of our anxiety and change our relationship with it instead.”
Allergies to anxiety
Anxiety is natural and a normal reaction to stress, danger, or something new, said Rosmarin, who wrote the book “Thriving with Anxiety: 9 Tools to Make Your Anxiety Work for You.”
Normal feelings of nervousness can snowball into an anxiety disorder if a person becomes overly fearful and finds themselves avoiding situations they know could trigger or worsen their symptoms.
Anxiety disorders in the United States are peaking at their highest level in decades. Some people have attributed this panic to the 24-hour news cycle and the constant stream of posts on social media that cause people to compare themselves to others. But experts say the heart of anxiety is beyond these surface triggers.
Society has taught Americans that anxiety is not natural, and this idea makes them less likely to tolerate being uncomfortable. Their fears are greater than the actual threat, said Dr. Justin Kei, medical director for outpatient behavioral health services for Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey.
“You judge yourself for feeling anxious, you catastrophize about it, and then your anxiety gets worse. And that cycle is what I believe creates the anxiety epidemic today,” said Rosmarin.
Pursue success instead of happiness
Experts also say that modernity has created anxiety – not only in the technologies developed, but also in what it values.
Most of the world, especially in a highly competitive and capitalistic country like the United States, consistently rewards external success like fame and fortune, but fails to reward internal successes like l ‘self-development, emotional stability and other goals less perceptible publicly.
This has led many to pursue accolades at the risk of genuine personal growth, fueling anxiety and diminishing self-esteem when these sometimes unrealistic expectations are not met, Rosmarin argued.
“We are lost in these aspects of humanity,” he said. “We are chasing happiness, ironically to the detriment of our mental health.”
This could partially explain why young people, who are typically at the beginning of their careers, are more likely than older adults to experience anxiety. Federal survey data showed that 50% of people aged 18 to 24 reported symptoms of anxiety or depression in 2023, according to a KFF analysis, compared with 29% of people aged 50 to 64 and 20% among those 65 or older.
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Matthew McHale, 34, a pricing and revenue manager from Mahwah, New Jersey, experienced this firsthand in his early 20s. Professional pressure, perfectionism and the compulsion to succeed among his peers led him to a diagnosis of anxiety disorder about 10 years ago.
“The goal was to advance as quickly as possible and learn as much as possible. Success meant pleasing my boss, receiving praise,” McHale said. He said he always thought about how he was “achieving more than the next person.”
The insecurities and pressures he felt professionally manifested themselves in his personal life. McHale began to doubt himself in everyday activities such as grocery shopping or going to a restaurant. He felt like he was in a constant state of “fight or flight,” he said. It paralyzed him.
After years of medication and therapy, McHale learned to value emotional and mental well-being over professional success. Exposure therapy helped him tolerate everyday situations where he was confronted by his greatest fear: failure.
Now he accepts that failure is a part of being human, and uses therapy techniques to prevent his anxiety from snowing.
“It’s okay not to feel good,” he said.
Fixing our relationship with anxiety
For years anxiety experts made the case that anxiety wasn’t necessarily a problem, but the idea didn’t resonate widely. Recently, the notion has been introduced that the best way to manage anxiety is to learn to live with it.
They say cognitive behavioral therapy and other treatments can help people understand and accept that life involves unpredictability, lack of control and feelings of nervousness are not inherently bad.
“People want to feel good and when we don’t feel good, that makes us nervous,” said Dr. Kia-Rai Prewitt, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Adult Behavioral Health. “Just because it feels uncomfortable, doesn’t mean it’s wrong.”
It took more than eight years, but Sanders, the nervous driver, said he learned to talk himself out of the spiral that fueled his anxiety. Instead of sitting in the parked car, fearing a particular intersection, think about how you can take extra precautions against dangerous motorists.
He waits a few seconds after the light turns green and looks both ways before going through the intersection. His anxiety allowed him to be a better driver.
Sanders now sees his anxiety as his bad knee, which stems from an injury decades ago. He wants to not have it, but he has learned to manage it.
“The knee doesn’t define who I am,” he said. “And neither is anxiety.”
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USA TODAY’s patient health and safety coverage is made possible in part by a grant from the Masimo Foundation for Ethics, Innovation and Competition in Health Care. The Masimo Foundation does not provide editorial input.
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