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In the Age of Anxiety, Some Ways to Calm Your Mind

07/25/2013 12:36 EDT | Updated 09/24/2013 05:12 EDT

According to data from the World Mental Health Survey, anxiety has emerged as the most prevalent mental health problem across the globe. I recently watched a documentary that aired on CBC, "The Age of Anxiety," and it claimed mental and emotional problems now top physical causes for worker absenteeism.

According to the documentary:

"Anxiety is being called the disease of the 21st century. Everybody seems to be either afflicted -- or knows someone who is. According to the World Health Organization, disorders related to 'dread' are the most prevalent mental illness on the globe at the moment."

But, where is all this anxiety is coming from? I have some ideas (and some suggestions to help!):

1. We think technology is our foe

It's true that fewer of us are clocking a traditional 9-to-5 day any more. Even if we work semi-regular hours in the office, we bring work home with all kinds of digital devices. This is so noticeable that in the last decade we've coined phrases for physical symptoms, like "blackberry thumb." Such ties to work lead many of us to feel like we simply have no down-time.

Suggestion: Make technology your friend

Hold on a minute! Technology was not invented to stress you out. It was really a way of making long processes more efficient... saving us the trouble of being tied to fax machines and snail mail, waiting until tomorrow to find out what happened in the world today. It's also supposed to be fun! And remember, YOU can decide to step away from iPads and Blackberries and just say no.

It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that if you respond to something quickly you're doing everybody else a favour, when in fact you're setting off a chain reaction... putting the burden back in somebody else's inbox. That may be required of your job sometimes, but it's likely not always the case. Allow yourself to unplug. And make sure you're using technology to make work and life better, not to create another stressor in your own and other's lives.

2. We think these are the worst of times!

We easily fall into the trap of thinking our particular decade or century is distinctly "worse" than the ones that came before. The thing is, every generation says that about the times they're living in!

Suggestion: See the wonderful things we've inherited.

It's easy to forget that past generations also grappled with new technology, with economic crashes, even with conflict that had a profound effect on entire generations. A little reality check here: Remember our grandparents lived through two world wars and a huge economic crash. Process for a moment what hospitals and healthcare looked like for past generations.

There's no denying that our times are also scary; there's economic instability, famine and poverty in many areas of the world. But don't romanticize the past to the detriment of today. Instead, think about what small thing you as an individual can do to make our world better. Volunteer some time, give to worthy causes, care for older generations and nurture future ones.

3. We feel like we're not "where we want to be."

Many people experience a gap between where they are and where they want to be. I sometimes see this in my industry. Young girls have a romantic idea what a "career" should look like and when they're struggling to keep up and meet deadlines, they feel devastated about the reality. Instead of seeing opportunities to improve and grow, many simply crash.

Suggestion: Recognize change can be small and cumulative

What's often needed is a positive attitude, patience and willingness to learn, and grow over time. My suggestions when I see staff becoming overwhelmed are rarely radical... it could be as simple as a way of sorting an inbox, or of allocating time throughout the day to think about the task(s) at hand. But such small changes can also have big results.

Instead of racing to the finish line, try to be happy in the moment and trust that you're headed in the right direction. This can be achieved by committing to small, daily acts that are goal-oriented. But it's also about making room for gentle balance -- like turning off the phone for a certain amount time every day or making space for exercise daily. Such decisions have a huge cumulative effect over time. Remember, life is a marathon, not a sprint.

4. We're confused by too much choice

Choice is something we normally celebrate. But sometimes it can seem we're burdened with too much decision-making. That can lead us to feel like we're chasing our own tails trying to reason or feel our way through all these decisions we have to make. It can even sometimes feel like we're not really programmed to deal with so many options!

Suggestion: Recognize your own path in the maze of choice.

OK, hypothetically there's so much choice. But a lot of it isn't really realistic for most of us. Don't let yourself become distracted by options that are neither desirable nor applicable to you.

Instead, get real about what your dilemmas really are. It's easy to conflate individual problems with universal woes, but a lot of the time that will just make you feel even more stuck. Instead of being distracted by all that's floating around, refocus on your personal needs and wants. Seeing your own path will help you block out the white noise of all those other options.

5. We just feel too much!

I read an article recently that claimed that "stress" is a relatively young word.

"It's hard to imagine people describing their regular days not using the word 'stress.' We hear and read it everywhere nowadays. Yet it is a very young word, 63 years to be exact. Scientist Hans Selye 'discovered' the condition after wondering about it since medical school."

I wonder if we've just become more emotionally fluent -- willing to express more of our feelings and needing new language to set different nuances of feeling apart from each other. Where our Dads might have said "I had a hard day at work" we now have language to describe that in greater detail. Does that mean we're experiencing a worse day than our Dads did, or are we simply better at describing it?

Suggestion: Talk it out!

We can decide to use that emotional fluency to our advantage. After all, the "talking cure" has helped so many people overcome anxiety, fear and confusion. Talk to your partner, your friends or professional therapists. Odds are there's nothing you can throw at them that they won't relate to! They may even offer some sage advice.

Remember, the one advantage we have is that we live in a time when we're all more fluent in feelings talk and better equipped to help each other. So don't be afraid to ask. Talk to someone that will provide positive thought...so many people provide negative feedback which makes us more anxious. And remember, no matter why you're feeling anxious, above all, know you're not alone.

Xo Natasha

Common Stress-Busters