More and more people are experiencing anxiety and being diagnosed with anxiety disorders. It’s great that there is less stigma around it now, but why are so many of us suffering from anxiety?!
Obviously, there are loads of factors, from brain chemicals and hormones to trauma, environment, stress levels and more. But, personally, I think that one of the big contributors to rising anxiety levels is lifestyle (in particular, the “modern” lifestyle).
Below are four of the ways that I know my lifestyle has, at times, contributed to my high levels of anxiety. Some of these might resonate with you too!
In the modern, Western world we are encouraged to “live fast”. Achieve, work, earn, spend, flaunt, spend, work, earn, spend… Fast food, fast fashion, fast travel, even fast relationships (people now have “situationships” instead of “relationships”?!). It’s actually exhausting. It can often feel like we have to live like this – just because everyone else is. If we aren’t achieving, if we aren’t earning, if we aren’t consuming, then our life is not a success.
When I get into this cycle, and then eventually stop to sleep or rest, I’m left with a horrible feeling of stress and anxiety. I just can’t relax. In normal day-to-day life, I feel ashamed if I’m not busy from 7am to 9pm. I feel ashamed if I don’t go to the gym, and then I feel anxious. To try and heal that, I’ll spend money on things I don’t need. I’ll feel good for five minutes, and then I’ll feel anxious about having less money, and overwhelmed by having too much stuff. It’s all about quick pleasure – that’s what sells, that’s what we’re taught to seek. Quick pleasure is great in moderation, but it most definitely is not a long-term lifestyle solution. It’s not sustainable and it causes more stress than it’s worth.
If you live like this and you’re regularly feeling anxious, consider slowing things down a bit. You don’t need to be busy all the time. You don’t need to go to the gym every single day if the pressure of it is making you feel bad. You don’t need to have all of the latest clothes, or excessive money, or to be out socialising all weekend, especially if these things are leading to anxiety. It might be that you genuinely enjoy having really busy and productive days, but then for some reason still come home feeling anxious. This is probably because the adrenaline, stress and energy involved in a busy lifestyle can leaving you feeling overwhelmed and exhausted, and this often manifests as anxiety (at least it does for me)!
If you think your lifestyle is causing you to feel anxious, then you should really consider slowing things down a bit. I’d recommend having a look online for blogs, articles and YouTube videos about ‘slow living’ and see if you can integrate this into your life. There’s absolutely no reason that you have to follow the cultural ideal of being an immaculately dressed socialite with a 10,000 squats-per-day bum, especially if it leads to you being exhausted, sleep deprived and anxious!
Lack of Faith
This is a slightly odd one because personally I do not consider myself to be religious. But there have been so many occasions where I wished that I was. These days, many people consider themselves to be either atheist or agnostic – they don’t follow or practice any particular religion. For me, there have been times that not having any solid ‘belief system’ has caused me really bad anxiety.
I often wonder about the “meaning of life” – Why are we here? What is the point in my life? “What is life? :)” etc. I fully support science, but even that doesn’t seem to answer everything (yet). And sometimes I have found the lack of certainty – about what comes next, about what it even means to exist – really unsettling. I’ve spiralled into awful spells of anxiety just thinking about these topics.
Eventually I found the AMAZING philosopher/speaker Alan Watts – who talks about all of these topics in a way that makes sense to me (he has studied many religions but a lot of his views are based on Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Taoism). I still don’t follow any religion in particular, but I definitely need some kind of philosophy or belief system (one that supports science) for my peace of mind! Before I found this, I definitely had a few existential crises!
Nobody should feel under pressure to follow a religion if it’s not what they believe in (that would lead to anxiety too!), but I think it can be really unsettling when you feel like life itself doesn’t make sense, or if you worry about death and what might come next. Whatever you believe in, there are others out there with the same views as you who will have ideas about the “big” questions! It’s completely natural to seek meaning and answers, and that can be tough for those of us who don’t follow a religion.
Focus on “Individualism”
In our culture, we’re really encouraged to focus on ourselves – how good we look, how much money we have, how much we can achieve. We’re encouraged to follow our dreams and, at times, to disregard the thoughts and feelings of others in pursuit of what we want (whether it’s happiness, love, money, etc). But in some cultures the focus is much more on the group, and people are encouraged to think of their family and wider society as well as, or even before, themselves.
Obviously there are pros and cons to both ways of living. But I find that when I focus too much on myself, and my own life, I can become very anxious. We are social creatures, and having shared goals and connections with others can be such a comfort. It gives you the sense that you are not alone, and you and your group (family, friends, society) can rely on each other when things are difficult. If you become consumed in yourself, you might find that you don’t have many people to turn to when things get difficult.
Also, I find that I have a much greater sense of meaning and inner peace when I do things for others. Realising that you are not the most important thing in this world can reduce the pressure that so many of us put on ourselves to be the most beautiful, the most successful and the most happy.
Lack of ‘Quietness’
When I think I’m taking time to relax, what I’m actually doing is scrolling through social media, absorbing myself in a Netflix series, chatting to friends, online shopping, etc. I rarely ever spend more than two minutes actually alone and quiet with no distractions. And I know this is the same for so many people. We’re constantly looking for ways to escape from silence, from boredom and from ourselves. I personally think that this is one of the most subtle but most significant reasons that so many of us feel constantly stressed or anxious.
How long could you sit in complete silence, and do absolutely nothing, before you start to get fidgety and look for a distraction? Those that can easily do that are often the people that regularly practice meditation, yoga or prayer. Being able to sit with your own thoughts in complete quietness is a difficult skill, but it is immensely rewarding.
A month before lockdown began, I joined a yoga studio and I can’t explain how peaceful I began to feel from regularly attending the classes. Knowing that I had a space where I could go for 90 minutes every evening to be completely still, and take care of my mind and body, was a huge relief. It’s not that it changed anything in my day to day life – I didn’t suddenly become extremely happy or anything. It was actually better than that – I started to feel more detached from the ups and downs of day to day life, and a sense of peace that couldn’t be damaged by how good or bad my day was. I really believe that finding time to be quiet, and becoming comfortable with being truly alone with ourselves, is so important for our mental health.
There are so many other lifestyle factors that I believe can contribute to problems with mental health (such bad diet and lack of exercise, lack of social connection, social media, etc) but these are four I really wanted to talk about – which I feel don’t get mentioned enough!
I really hope this was helpful in some way if you’re struggling with anxiety. Please let me know your thoughts, and happy to chat if you have any questions!
Disclaimer: I am not a medical or mental health professional – everything I write is purely based on my own opinions and experiences. If you have any concerns about your mental health then please visit your doctor as soon as possible!