Everyone experiences some level of anxiety.  But it’s so unpleasant. Wouldn’t it be nice to always feel calm, cool, and collected?

Interestingly, research suggests that the only people who never feel anxious are those with sociopathic tendencies. The worry-free life may not be available to folks with a conscience.

Although it is one of the less popular emotions, anxiety actually serves a very useful purpose. You may be asking, “Are you serious?  What good is something that makes me feel nervous, sick in my stomach, shaky all over, sweaty, obsessive, and like my heart is going to jump out of my chest?”

Consider this: without a certain amount of anxiety we would never get our paperwork done, do the taxes, or schedule that mammogram. And in an emergency, without huge doses of it, we wouldn’t have the adrenaline rush needed for the “fight, flight, or freeze” response that may save our life!

The problem with anxiety is that it doesn’t often come in the right dose at the right time. It can come on like a flood and overwhelm our capacity to cope. The trick is to maximize its benefits, and develop the ability to regulate it so that it doesn’t interfere with our performance or, in its worst extreme, diminish our quality of life.

                       Fear sharpens the senses. Anxiety paralyzes them. (Scott Stossel quoting Kurt Goldstein).

A multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical industry is founded on our incapacity to regulate it naturally. Medication may be beneficial for the worst variety, but first consider what is possible with your “internal pharmacy” (i.e. the dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin elevating benefits of things like exercise, hobbies, or even sex).

I thought I knew a great deal about anxiety as an experienced licensed clinical social worker, who also, ten years ago, overcame an extreme form of depression with anxiety. But having just finished My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind by Scott Stossel, I discovered there was so much more to understand, integrate, and apply to my life.

Stossel

Stossel, who happens to be the highly respected editor of The Atlantic, is an incredible writer – witty, intelligent, clear, and absolutely thorough. He also suffers from the most oppressive case of lifelong anxiety I have ever known. It was his heroic effort to solve his own troubles with anxiety that led him to chronicle it in his self-revelatory book. My Age of Anxiety is refreshingly unique and hard to categorize: it is a 400 page encyclopedic montage of memoir, historical analysis, cultural commentary, philosophical exploration, and medical examination of anxiety from the beginning of recorded history to the present time.

Stossel’s determination to always get it just right makes for comically embarrassing personal stories and extreme psycho-educational learning. The man never took a short cut in his life. A self-described neurotic – and perfectionist to the core – he is not given to approximations nor willing to withhold a single nuance. Nothing is easy. Nothing is black or white. And nothing is explained from a single perspective or theory. It is all very complicated and subject to interpretation – not unlike the neurological mystery of our brains, the worldview of an anxious mind, or life itself. Never simple … but infinitely interesting.

I filled up the white space on so many pages as I recorded my own reactions to Stossel’s thought-provoking discussion of anxiety. Stossel examines the source of anxiety (the proverbial nature versus nurture question) by mining the writings of Plato, Epictetus, Darwin, Kierkegaard, and Freud, to name just a few. Despite the aggregate wisdom of this great pantheon of thinkers, we continue to be flummoxed by anxiety. National Institute of Mental Health data indicates that 18% of individuals suffer from a clinical anxiety disorder. This is an issue central to our nation’s health and well-being.

I found myself interacting with this book deeply and without restraint, because frankly, I feel that I am a bit of an expert on the subject. I present as evidence the fact that, as a junior high student, when my peers were enthralled with John Hughes movies and Star Wars mania, my favorites were of the Woody Allen variety.  Annie Hall was my role model. Need I say more?

There is hope for those suffering with mild and even extreme anxiety. I have had more than my share of anxiety and have found some effective methods of managing it. The concept of neuroplasticity suggests that new ways of being can strengthen one’s capacity for anxiety-busting qualities like resilience and self-efficacy.

Extensive research on veterans has demonstrated that certain characteristics such as resilience and acceptance are what have allowed some people to maintain or reclaim mental health. These qualities may be in-born, but can also be learned.  As Stossel describes, “These include optimism, altruism, having a moral compass or set of beliefs that cannot be shattered, faith and spirituality, humor, having a role model, social supports, facing fear (or leaving one’s comfort zone), having a mission or meaning in life, and practice in meeting and overcoming challenges.”

Another important concept for preventing and overcoming anxiety is “self-efficacy.” Cognitive psychologist Albert Bandura wrote brilliantly on this subject. Stossel reports, “… repeatedly proving to oneself one’s competence and ability to master situations, and doing so in spite of feelings of anxiety, depression, or vulnerability, builds up self-confidence and psychological strength that can provide a bulwark against anxiety and depression.”

YES! I know this through my experience as a runner. I find that each run is a lesson in self-efficacy. Yesterday, preparing for the Fontana half-marathon, my running club had an 8-mile, race-pace training run to get through. When I woke up, I was tired, still stressed from a difficult work week, and not sure that I was up for the challenge.

But getting into my routine, putting on my gear without any thought of having another option, enjoying my morning coffee … I set off at 7 am to meet my running group. And sure enough, surrounded by the support and camaraderie of others with a shared goal, I was able to rise to a higher purpose and not be dragged down by my weakest impulses (e.g. parking myself in my cozy reading chair all morning). The anxiety receded. As it churned a bit during the run (Can I do it? Do I have the energy?) being part of the group and putting one foot in front of the other helped me remain focused on the goal. Before I knew it, my self-doubt was eliminated; the 8-mile run was finished. And, the beautiful end product was a feeling of accomplishment and calm. My internal pharmacy was well stocked.

You are not your anxiety. You can find methods to regulate it and have your best possible life. I recommend The Age of Anxiety as a means of understanding anxiety and exploring the many avenues for hope and healing. And, might I suggest running (or any other form of exercise)? It has been a lifesaver for me, and has left me – if only for brief periods – calm, cool, and collected.

 

 

 

 

 

Going Wild: A Remedy for Nature Deficit Disorder

American culture has moved indoors. There is such comfort and entertainment available within the finely accorded walls of our homes and offices that time spent in nature is becoming increasingly rare.

With the advent of the computer, video games, and television, children have more and more enticements to stay inside. The average American child spends 44 hours a week with electronic media. The numbers are even worse for adults, who spend more of their lives than ever indoors.1 Adults report spending an average of 87% of their time in enclosed buildings plus about 6% of their time in enclosed vehicles.2 That means a minuscule 7% of time is spent outdoors!

The results of this phenomena have been described as “nature deficit disorder.”What is the solution for this disturbing over-domestication of our species?

Going wild.

By this I don’t mean approaching life with a hedonistic devil may care, remove the shackles of morality, “girls gone wild,” YOLO abandon.

I am talking about getting into nature. Simply. Deeply. Truly. Real nature … in any of its forms. Wilderness, community parks, groomed suburban trails, or even a vacant urban lot. Anywhere that natural life exists. You probably don’t have to go very far. Certainly, a National Park can provide a climactic nature experience, but that level of intensity is not needed to obtain the benefits of what lies in the created order.

A substantial body of research indicates that direct contact with nature leads to increased mental health and psychological development. A wide range of encounters with nature have been shown to produce such benefits, including extended wilderness excursions, hiking in open space, strolling through a city park, gardening, or tending a small plot of urban grass.

Dr. John Davis4 compiled a summary of extensive research indicating a broad array of physical, social, and psychological benefits of nature experiences. His findings are cross-cultural and universal. He cites the following: Nature experiences reduce burnout and increase a sense of relaxation. It helps people recover from surgery and improves their performance on many tasks. It increases one’s sense of fascination, intrinsic interest, and enjoyment. Nature experiences strengthen “hardiness,” which is a combination of an internal locus of control, an appreciation of challenge as opportunity, and a commitment to self. Additionally, it provides a sense of connectedness, wholeness, meaningfulness and is related to better mental health and less stress. In nature, people typically experience a sense of “flow” (absorption into the activity, present-centeredness, healthy loss of ego, and self-transcendence). Natural surroundings provide an enhanced opportunity for transpersonal and peak experiences.

On this subject, my stories are too numerous to tell … but here are a few:

◊ Kevin, my high school church youth director in Minnesota, had a side business as a BWCA (Boundary Water’s Canoe Area) wilderness guide. He took our youth group on an annual outdoor adventure in BWCA. Every year he transported thirty of us in vans, carrying trailers with 15 canoes, up to the Canadian border to this million acres of pristine wilderness – teeming with thousands of lakes connected by trails or “portages.” There were no bathrooms, no showers, no electricity, no roads, no cars, and no motorized vehicles. Diet Coke existed only in my fantasies.

Going wild in BWCA was a blessed adventure for me as a teen. The trip was grueling, beautiful, and spiritually uplifting. I went three times. We paddled all day every day, portaging from lake to lake, carrying our supplies on our backs: our food, tents, first aid equipment, sleeping bags, and canoes. Yes. I carried a canoe on my back. This was surely a “hardiness” building experience. Because it required grit and perseverance, I gained strength and confidence. In the midst of the vast outdoors I felt entirely enchanted and connected with nature – as loons made haunting calls across the water, the campfire crackled, and the warm morning sun woke us to another day of rugged exploration. We shared stories, prayed, perfected our paddling technique, gave backrubs, caught fish, and slapped mosquitoes. I came home with a heightened awareness of my place in the larger world, the mystery therein, and a feeling of connectedness with nature and my peer group.

◊ My dad loves motorcycles. He has collected, built, restored, swapped, and tended them for his entire adult life: BMW’s, Motoguzzies, Hondas, Yamahas, Indians, Suzuki’s, Kowasaki’s, and Harley Davidson’s. At any time he had twelve motorcycles in varying states of repair in our 3-car garage. Taking a sidecar ride along backwoods roads with him was a childhood delight of mine. Exploring remote country on his motorcycle has been a lifelong fascination, the wind in his hair – at one with his aromatic surroundings. One of his great pleasures has been traveling by motorcycle 500 miles from Minneapolis, Minnesota to Sturgis, North Dakota for the annual motorcycle convention. He has attended this event for 40 years, and camps outdoors every time. Sturgis provides him with a natural adventure, even as he turned 79 years old.

I said to my brother Bob, “Don’t you think Dad is getting too old to bike to Sturgis? He’s having a hard time walking.” My brother quipped, “Well, he seems to ride better than he walks these days.” It was his last year at Sturgis. Being out in the wild, sleeping in the open air, free as a bird … he was still having the time of his life. As he sold his last motorcycle and moved into the retirement home on Lake Johanna with my mom, this was an important peak experience. His wild-hearted hobby has afforded him a lifetime of restoration, affiliation, and enjoyment.

◊ My husband and our two children traveled 6 years ago to Zion National Park for a four-day, back-country hiking trip. We carried everything in backpacks high into the jagged mountains. It was intensely physical due to steep elevation gain and harsh weather conditions. On the challenging hike down, I was exhausted and singularly focused on getting to our car. However, my then 15 year-old son, Johnny wanted to hike a particularly difficult side-trip out on an elevated precipice called “Angels Landing”. Having done it previously, my husband encouraged me to accompany him. I agreed, unknowingly.

Only while out on the steep rock face did I discover what a death defying feat it was. I could not look down, as the towering height was mind-boggling and anxiety provoking. I had to look ahead and focus intently to cast out the rising fear of the long descent to earth. Johnny plodded on with the casual confidence of a billy-goat. Reaching our destination on the outermost “landing”, we marveled at the astonishing view, and the feeling of being part of something vast and larger than ourselves. We shared a mysterious flow … something sacred. When we finally returned to the trail I collapsed in relief for having safely finished. I only realized the magnitude of what this meant to Johnny when he later said proudly to his friends, “I knew I had a baad-ass mom when she hiked Angel’s Landing with me.” It seems this trek was a rite of passage and a compatibility experience for us both.

I could share dozens of wilderness experiences, and I imagine you have many of your own to tell. The question is, why don’t we get out there more? Sure, I enjoy running my dog Winston almost daily on nearby neighborhood trails. But, exploring nature more deeply and more regularly would further nourish my body, mind, and soul. It is largely a matter of determination and planning. What about you?

Although our homes may be safe and comfortable, by retreating into them we risk contracting nature deficit disorder. The evidence is clear: Partaking of nature will make us happier, healthier, and more in touch with ourselves and our world. Let’s go wild.

 

1The New York Times, “Who Americans Are and What They Do,” in Census Data, by Sam Roberts, December 15, 2006.

2“National Human Pattern Activity Survey,” Neil Klepeis, University of California Berkeley and Wayne Ott, Stanford University

3Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder and The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder.

4John Davis, “Psychological Benefits of Nature Experiences: An Outline of Research and Theory,” Naropa University and School of Lost Borders, July 2004.*

*Davis compiled research on the psychological benefits of nature experiences and summarized the following benefits:

Relaxation, stress reduction, and mindfulness

-Environmental Preference: coherence, complexity, legibility, and mystery

-Recovery from surgery, physical health and healing improved performance

-Increased sensory awareness and felt-sense

-Hardiness, locus of control, challenge, flow, and compatibility

-Challenge of wilderness experiences leading to self-confidence and improved self-esteem

-Coherence (defined as perceptions of connectedness, wholeness and meaningfulness) is related to better mental health and reduced negative stress

-Flow – involving high-stakes outcomes, high intensity, intrinsic motivations, absorption into the activity, and self-transcendence

-Compatibility – a fit between one’s need, one’s capacities, and what the environment offers.

-Extensive benefits for child development

-Social gains through nature experiences

-Exercise and physical fitness, leading to improved mental health