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HomeBlogThe anxiety paradox: developing resilience by embracing painful emotions

The anxiety paradox: developing resilience by embracing painful emotions

By: Medix Team
The anxiety paradox: developing resilience by embracing painful emotions

Rising prosperity and our digitally connected world are spawning record levels of stress and anxiety. How can we learn to manage them better?

The Covid-19 pandemic is leading to a steep rise in mental health problems. That’s not surprising given the stress and anxiety the virus is generating on an economic, physical and psychological level.

 

But stress was on the rise a long time before the pandemic and it kills more people. Studies show that even before Covid-19, people were more anxious than at any time in recorded history despite being wealthier and apparently healthier.

 

The reality is that while we might look robust on the outside, that’s often not the case on the inside despite what we project to the outside world. And in that disconnect lies the answer according to positive psychologist, Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar.

 

In the following Q&A, he explains how and why we need to give ourselves permission to be human by embracing the full kaleidoscope of emotions that constitute our essential nature.

 

Dr. Ben-Shahar is a world-renowned expert on the science of happiness, having tutored the subject at Harvard University, written numerous books and most recently co-founded the Happiness Studies Academy.

 

Q. In your books and lectures you talk about “giving ourselves permission to be human”. What do you mean by that?

 

A. The foundation of happiness is allowing unhappiness in. There’s a common misconception today that a happy life means one where we’re constantly happy and experiencing an ongoing high.

 

The reality is that there are one two types of people who don’t experience painful emotions such as sadness, anger, frustration, anxiety or envy. They’re either dead or they’re psychopaths.

 

Experiencing painful emotions is a good sign. The problem is that we don’t give them the respect they deserve.

 

Just think about the way we talk about them. It’s always a negative, not a positive. There’s a value judgement there.

 

And yet, our deep growth and life experiences result from hardships and difficulties. We need to learn to embrace these emotions.

 

Q. So what’s the upside from that?

 

A. There are two good outcomes. Firstly, when we accept and embrace painful emotions they don’t overstay their welcome. If we reject them, they tend to intensify and grow stronger.

 

Secondly, We’ll also be inadvertently rejecting positive emotions because all of our emotions flow through one pipe in the brain. Rejecting pain leads to the rejection of pleasure. Rejection of envy leads to the rejection of love. Rejecting anxiety leads to the suppression of excitement.

 

Q. How have we got into this situation?

 

A. One answer is very obvious and natural. No one enjoys feeling pain and we all like to experience pleasure. So there’s a natural tendency to seek pleasure and avoid pain.

 

The second reason, which reinforces that inclination, is social media. Even during Covid-19 all we see online are lots of people doing extremely well.

 

They might be learning how to bake, having closer interactions with their loved ones, or re-evaluating their lives and having lots of remarkable insights. The sense is that everyone else is doing great except for ME.

 

None of us wants to appear to be the only one who’s struggling so we post similarly uplifting and congratulatory posts too. What we’re essentially doing is not giving ourselves permission to be human.

 

We’re reinforcing a great deception, which is by and large responsible for the great depression that we’re experiencing as a society.

 

Q. Do you think this is affecting young people more strongly? There’s reportedly an epidemic of anxiety among the young.

 

A. Yes absolutely. There’s some startling research, which shows that anxiety is at an all-time high as are suicide rates among the younger generation. Loneliness is also high and empathy levels low.

 

All these afflictions can be traced back to kids’ growing dependence on and addiction to social media.

 

Q. So what can a parent do to give their children more resilience and enable them to handle this great deception?

 

A. Our role as parents, or as teachers, is first and foremost to lead by example. If a parent comes home and is glued to their Smartphone, or talks to their kids and their partner while they’re on the phone, then that’s not a good message. Children in particular do what we do rather what we say.

 

The other about technology is that many parents use it as a babysitter. It allows them to do other things.

 

Technology is fine in moderation. But we do our children a great deal of harm if we let it become a way of life.

 

Q. But even if parents succeed in moderating usage, how can they get their children to understand that social media posts are someone projecting an image of their life rather than reality?

 

A. The parents’ role is to provide a reality check. It’s about letting the kids know that life is about ups and downs.

 

It’s about recognising that we’re not alone in experiencing negative feelings. Suffering and struggling allows us to simply enter the pervasive human experience.

 

Q. How can we manage difficult emotions like envy or the desire for revenge?

 

A. The first step in dealing with them is to accept and embrace them. How do we do that? By observing them. By observing our thought processes, what we feel and where we feel it in the body. 

 

Secondly, we can talk about these feelings to someone we trust, who cares about us.

 

We can also write about them. There’s a lot of value in journaling. There are plenty of studies that show how it can help mental wellbeing.

 

Then there’s a lot to be said for shedding a tear. There’s plenty of research showing how beneficial a good cry can be psychologically and physiologically.

 

Q. Why have so many of us got anxious even though we theoretically live a life of plenty?

 

A. It’s because we’ve lost the connection to recovery. So anxiety leads to burnout.

 

A good analogy involves the gym. Lifting weights stresses our muscles, but that resistance is potentially good for us. The problem begins when we go too often and don’t give our muscles time to recover. That’s when we get weaker rather than stronger.

 

It’s important to remember that everyone experience stress. It’s part of the human condition. In the past, we had a lot more time for recovery.

 

These days, there are too many stimulants. Let’s take something simple like light. A few centuries ago, we had to go to bed when it was dark. Now we can just switch the light on and stay up.

 

We’re paying an extremely high price for this. There are literally hundreds of millions of people struggling with burnout.

 

Q. What tips do you have to minimise scrolling on social media for hours on end?

 

A. The first thing to recognise is that it’s not easy. The sirens or modernity are luring and they’re powerful. The tech companies’ primary objective is to keep us glued to our screens. That’s their currency.

 

We also need to understand that we’re dealing with addiction. How do we deal with it? Let’s take alcohol as an example. If you have a drink problem would you go to bed with a bottle of whisky right next to you?

 

No. You’d keep it as far away as possible. Yet people have their phone right next to their beds. There’s always a good excuse: it’s my alarm clock or I might get an urgent call. But we can put them away.

 

I think it’s important to create islands of sanity throughout the day. That could be spatial or temporal. Create a room or a space in your home where you don’t use technology. Or carve out technology free times of the day.

 

Create some rituals to overcome that siren call. Think back to Odysseus and the sirens. He asked his fellow seaman to lash him to the mast so he couldn’t be lured by the sirens and dashed on the rocks.

 

Q. Has the pandemic made our scrolling addiction worse? So many people are stuck at home, desperate to connect with the outside world and that one link is unfortunately our phones.

 

A. The pandemic has certainly intensified our addiction. But it does demonstrate an upside as well.

 

We can all now speak to our parents, or best friend thousands of miles away. Like most things it goes back to what the Greek philosopher Aristotle said: moderation is the key to happiness.

 

Q. Why does anxiety seem to be so prevalent? Are there unique reasons for this?

 

A. Yes there are. We’ve lost the ability to look after ourselves first. Many think they’re selfish if they think about themselves first.

 

Q. Why’s that?

 

A. There’s a very common and harmful distinction made in the West between selfishness and selflessness. We equate selfishness with words like evil, inconsiderate, immoral, self-interested.

 

On the other hand, we denote selflessness with words like nice, kind, generous, moral and good. This distinction is harmful psychologically and ethically.

 

It is part of our nature is to look after ourselves. If we go against it, we’ll pay a high price.

 

The solution is to synthesise the two. People who take care of themselves and their own happiness, are also much more likely to be generous and kind to others.

 

Ultimately, if we’re not happy then we cannot sustain giving to others either. They are two sides of the same coin. Care for yourself and for others.

 

 

Q.  Are there different anxiety triggers in Asia now that it is getting richer and richer?

 

A. Not necessarily. There are essentially three levels underlying happiness.

 

There are some universal elements to happiness whether someone is in Beijing Nairobi, Washington DC or Berlin. One is our need for relationships. It’s the number one predictor of happiness regardless of where anyone grows up.

 

Another universal one is our need for exercise and movement whether we live in a tropical jungle or a concrete one.

 

The second one is cultural. There are different cultural practise. In the US, we’re often taught the need to be happy all the time and there’s less acceptance of negative emotions.

 

Asian cultures are generally more open to pain and suffering. There’s a great deal we can learn from the other.

 

Finally there are individual differences. What constitutes a happy life is unique to each of us. So I encourage my students to do mesearch rather than research. Identify what the right life is for us.

 

There’s no end point either. I’ve been studying happiness for more than three decades. I’m constantly learning. They key is to follow Gandhi’s advice to experiment with truth rather than seek an absolute truth.



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