Working through fall anxiety
“Autumn anxiety,” a brand of seasonal affective disorder, affects millions of people each year, and an expert talks to us about why it happens.
Ken Sanders got into his car and sat in the driver’s seat with a heavy sigh.
The Dunellen, New Jersey, resident had an hour-long commute to work — 45 minutes if he was lucky. But as he got behind the wheel of his black BMW, he felt panic set in.
His mind raced through all the possible scenarios; a large van pulls out to merge onto a busy highway, causing him to swerve and lose control. A car speeding through the intersection runs a red light and crashes into him.
Sanders felt his chest tighten, his body shake, his heart pound, as if he had just been hit by a speeding car. In fact, he was still sitting on the road with the engine off, white-knuckling the steering wheel because of the mental illness he had been managing for decades.
Sanders, 63, has battled various versions of her anxiety disorder for most of her life. Research shows he’s not alone.
The prevalence of anxiety in the United States has increased dramatically in recent years, affecting more than one-third of adults each year. Anxiety is one of the most common mental illnesses in the country.
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But despite the common belief that diagnosis and treatment should go hand-in-hand, mental health professionals say anxiety isn’t a problem in and of itself. It is human nature to feel threatened or to worry about the consequences. People don’t need to get rid of anxiety, experts say, but rather learn how to live with it.
“We’ve taken a false view of anxiety that you should never have it,” says David Rosmarin, founder of the Anxiety Center. “We think low anxiety is a disease, a disorder.”
Rosemary is one of a growing number of anxiety experts who have differing opinions. “We need to stop getting rid of our anxiety and change our relationship with it.”
Allergic to anxiety
Anxiety is a natural and normal response to stress, danger, or something new, says Rosmarin, author of 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 avoids situations they know may trigger or worsen their symptoms.
Anxiety disorders in the US have reached their highest levels in decades. Some people attribute this panic to the 24-hour news cycle and the constant stream of social media posts that make people compare themselves to others. But experts say the essence of anxiety goes beyond these superficial triggers.
Society has taught Americans that anxiety is unnatural, and this idea makes them less tolerant of being uncomfortable. Their fear is greater than the actual threat, says Dr. Justin Kay, medical director of behavioral health outpatient services at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey.
“You judge yourself for anxiety, you catastrophize about it, and your anxiety gets worse. And that cycle is what I think is creating the anxiety epidemic today,” Rosmarin said.
Achieving success instead of happiness
Experts also say that modernity has caused concern not only about the technology developed, but also about what it values.
Most of the world, especially in a highly competitive and capitalist country like the US, consistently rewards external successes such as fame and fortune, but fails to reward internal successes such as self-development, emotional stability, and other less perceived goals.
This has led many to chase accolades at the risk of real personal growth, creating anxiety and diminishing self-worth when those sometimes unrealistic expectations aren’t met, Rosmarin argues.
“We’ve lost these aspects of humanity,” he said. “We pursue happiness, ironically to the detriment of our mental health.”
This may partly explain why young people, who are typically early in their careers, are more likely to experience anxiety than older people. Federal survey data showed that in 2023, 50% of people aged 18 to 24 reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, compared with 29% of people aged 50 to 64 and 20% of people aged 65 and older.
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Matthew McHale, 34, a pricing and revenue manager from Mahwah, New Jersey, experienced this firsthand in his 20s. Professional pressure, perfectionism and the compulsion to succeed among peers led her to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder about 10 years ago.
“The goal was to get up as early as possible and learn as much as possible. Success meant pleasing my boss, getting accolades,” McHale said. He said he always wondered how he would “achieve more than the next person.”
The mistrust and pressures he felt professionally manifested in his personal life. McHale began to doubt himself in everyday activities such as grocery shopping or going to a restaurant. It felt like he was constantly in ‘fight or flight,’” she 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 faced his greatest fear: failure.
He now accepts that failure is part of being human, and he uses therapy techniques to prevent his anxiety from snowballing.
“Definitely not feeling well,” he said.
Fixing our relationship with anxiety
For years, anxiety experts have argued that anxiety isn’t necessarily a problem, but the idea hasn’t caught on widely. Recently, it has been widely believed 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 includes unpredictability, lack of control and feelings of nervousness are not inherently bad.
“People want to feel good, and when we don’t feel good, it makes us nervous,” says Kia-Rae Prewitt, MD, 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, a nervous driver, said he learned how to break out of the spiral that fueled his anxiety. Instead of sitting in a parked car, afraid of a certain intersection, he thinks about how he can take extra precautions against dangerous drivers.
He waits a few seconds after the light turns green and looks both ways before crossing the intersection. His anxiety empowered him to become a better driver.
Sanders now views her anxiety as her bad knee, which stems from an injury she suffered decades ago. He wishes he didn’t have it, but he’s learned how to manage it.
“The knee does not define who I am,” he said. “And neither is anxiety.”
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