I have written a lot about anxiety. Mostly, I call out trends and studies, calling on business and community leaders to recognize it as real, constant, debilitating. But this makes anxiety distant -- abstract. It's easy to process anxiety in charts and graphs, then quickly dismiss it.
So let's give it a face -- my face.
My professional career stretches 16, almost 17 years. On the surface, it seems a success: ladder-climbing in various organizations; broad experience in journalism, marketing, and content creation; bylines in multiple publications.
This hides the almost ruinous undercurrent which has become so strong, I struggle to manage day-to-day work. Assignments come, assignments go. I agonize over expectations, berate myself for corrections, question my abilities as a writer with each strike of the dreaded red pen. And to compensate, I overwrite, over-edit, constantly apologize, tear down whole articles that took weeks to complete because a simple change was suggested.
Across multiple companies, I feared for my job -- simply because experienced higher-ups offered suggestions for improvement. It cultivated a survivalist mentality, pushing me to think constantly about a backup, a contingency plan should the axe fall today, tomorrow, in the next 5 minutes.
Perhaps worst of all, in this siege of angst, I frequently wonder if I have lost my edge. Should I change careers altogether and avoid the embarrassment of failure as a writer? When is the right time to move? What career would guarantee success -- or, at the very least, less self-doubt?
Will I ever be able to get another job?
This is all strikingly extreme. I understand that. But anxiety doesn't operate in rationality. It tears at the fabric of logic and assumes the worst, however unlikely or downright impossible the worst may be. In my anxious mind, the safest approach is to assume crisis and catastrophe are just around the corner -- and be pleasantly surprised by anything marginally better.
It's exhausting. My constant "fight or flight" response makes calm, analytical thinking a strain. My best work is, to be frank, not in the cards. Who can tap seas of creativity and make the most of writing acumen when red alerts are blazing? Not I.
So why should you care? First of all, empathy is under-cultivated in our society. We need to change that if we expect our relationships -- both personal and professional -- to grow and strengthen. That starts with understanding the pains of those around us and how those pains prompt action and inspire outlook.
Second, it's important to understand anxiety triggers that often come from our work. For some 20% of adult Americans, anxiety is a daily burden, stoked by confusing, absent, or constantly shifting expectations; poor instruction or training; absurd demands; bullying; social ostracization; and countless other workplace problems. In this environment, productivity ebbs -- sometimes disappears. Businesses suffer.
In my own experience, the responsibility for eliminating anxiety-induced behaviors is placed squarely on those who suffer from anxiety. True, anxiety is a complicated condition with poorly-understood origins, but we do know that our environment is partly to blame for its virulence. So where are the leaders who can affect environmental change? Where is the effort to cultivate and care for people?
Third, we need to accept that anxiety is an epidemic -- and it will spiral out of control if we don't talk about it. For many, it has already skyrocketed, owing to the pandemic, the undeniable effects of climate change, political strife, financial instability -- the list goes on.
Our response as a society has been poor. We circulate memes of support on social media for those struggling in silence, and while words of support help, this is not the societal confession we need it to be. Let's be honest about this -- as honest as I have tried to be in this article.
I have no easy answers, but I do have a gentle plea: Let's build a culture of awareness, sensitivity, and action that acknowledges the world of hurt anxiety causes. Let those who suffer from it breathe a sigh of relief as they share their struggles with friends, family, leaders. Let conversations spark to address the daily anxieties that debilitate us. And let us take steps to identify the root of this epidemic so we may finally move away from survivalism and thrive.