american anxiety“As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler; solitude will not be solitude, poverty will not be poverty, nor weakness weakness.” -Henry David Thoreau

NEWSFLASH!: The United States gets the gold! We have become the nation with the highest level of anxiety in the world. According to a recent study by the World Health Organization, 31 percent of Americans are likely to suffer from an anxiety problem at some point during their lifetime. The silver medal goes to Columbia with a lifetime risk of 25.3 percent, and the bronze to New Zealand with 24.6 percent. “The United States has transformed into the planet’s undisputed worry champion,” writes Taylor Clark, author of Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool.”

Articles have been written by psychologists, politicians, pundits and other bloggers trying to explain the reasons for this downside of American mental health. I’m more interested in what we can do about it. We will undoubtedly need to tackle this problem from many different angles. This is only one.

Since prior generations of Americans did not reportedly suffer from such epic levels of fear and worry, is there something to be learned from our familial history? If you are one of the worried masses, could it be time to simplify your life?

I’d like to offer some lessons that I’ve learned along the way. I am extremely grateful that I am less anxious now than I used to be. I have been working on the lesson of “The Serenity Prayer” for many years now. Brilliant in its simplicity, this prayer is one of the key spiritual tools used by virtually all 12-step recovery support group members and many others.

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” If you do not believe in God, the same lesson is spelled out in a Mother Goose rhyme. “For every ailment under the sun, there is a remedy, or there is none; If there be one, try to find it; If there be none, never mind it.”

Lesson #1: Don’t sweat the small stuff. I was getting a haircut yesterday listening to the woman on my left discussing why she couldn’t go for a hike in the mountains because of her fear of rattlesnakes, and the woman on my right distressed about how embarrassing her hair color might be. When I get a surge of anxiety about something, the first thing I do is put it to a reality test. Is this a life or death issue? Not much gets past this first test.

Lesson #2: Ask yourself if worrying will in any way change the outcome. If you thought that the woman afraid of rattlesnakes had a sincere life and death worry, it still wouldn’t pass lesson #2. Although it is extremely rare to see a rattlesnake on our cleared trails, it could happen. Therefore…

Lesson #3: The best way to combat this worry– and most others– is with preventive action. Wear boots. Hike without iPod buds in your ears so you could hear a rattle or a shout. Think about whatever is causing you anxiety and figure out what specifically (if anything) you can do to prevent a negative outcome. Take concrete steps.

Lesson #4: The less you are attached to something, the less worry you will have about losing it. Think about how many worries would be eliminated if you learned to be thrifty, buying yourself and your kids only what you can afford (not on credit). I remember my mother teaching me the importance of saving up “for a rainy day.” Since she had suffered through the Great Depression, my mom learned to allay anxiety by only spending on money on important things and always having some extra squirreled away for possible emergencies.

Lesson #5: Learn to appreciate the simple pleasures in life and to appreciate what you already have. It can be a challenge to begin to want only for what you have, trusting that worry won’t bring you more. Take a few moments at the end of each day to list specific things that you are grateful for, and begin this practice with your spouse and kids. What I have learned over time is that I am most grateful for the simple things: time spent with friends and family, fresh flowers from my garden, a good book, and a hike in the mountains (without rattlesnakes).

Anxious man photo available from Shutterstock