Illustration: Polly Becker
There's evidence that many people have brains a bit like mine—still abuzz in the wee hours with "What if...what if...no, seriously, what if...?" Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 18 percent of the population, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. In the age of information overload and up-to-the-second Twitter feeds, it's not surprising that we feel constantly on high alert, says Friedemann Schaub, MD, PhD, author of The Fear and Anxiety Solution. "The constant barrage of news gives us every little detail of every disaster. Even though there may be nothing dangerous in our immediate environment, we still feel like something bad could also happen to us at any moment," he says.
To further complicate matters, this stuff is supposed to give us the jitters. "We're wired to pay attention to things that are scary," says Martin Rossman, MD, author of The Worry Solution. "The number one function of our brain is to keep us alive, so we worry as a way to anticipate possible dangers and problem-solve our way through them. All of us come from vigilant ancestors—if they hadn't been vigilant, they wouldn't have survived." Unfortunately, Rossman adds, we've gotten so good at worrying, we don't always know how to shut it off. The large-scale fears can get mixed in with the petty grievances, leaving us drowning in anxiety.
So how do you see your way clear? For starters, focus only on what you can control. "Instead of avoiding pain, uncertainty and heartbreak, we should embrace these emotions," says Steven Hayes, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Nevada, Reno. "They're fundamentally a part of what it means to be human."