Dear Readers: I feel like your mom. When I don’t hear from you, I worry. I know you’re busy, that your attention is pulled in a thousand directions, but if you would just take a minute to drop me a line, I would feel so much better. I’ll even put the contact info right here up top in case you get distracted before you get to the end: [email protected], @rockyroadadvice (Twitter) or Rocky Road, 1021 Main Ave, Durango, CO 81301.This is ostensibly an advice column, but I’m interested in whatever you have to share, be it a question, comment or haiku. You may identify yourself by a pseudonym, a descriptor, a first name only or merely as anonymous.
So while I wait to hear from you, I’ll address what I know is going on but maybe you don’t want to talk about: anxiety.
Researchers have documented a sharp rise in anxiety among young people in recent years, and here it is no different. A recent Fort Lewis College survey found that 68 percent of students felt overwhelming anxiety in the last 12 months compared with 47 percent in 2010.
This is especially concerning because of the link between anxiety and suicide, which has also been on the rise, particularly Colorado. In the past decade, suicide rates among those 20 to 24 years old have nearly doubled, according to state health department records.
(Earlier this month the Durango Herald published an excellent series on the subject titled Creating connections: Solutions to youth suicide in La Plata County. You can check it out on their website.)
As for why so much anxiety, various culprits have been indicted, including helicopter parents, over-scheduled kids, and ruptured families. But top of the prime suspects list is smartphones. This is because they offer a window through which we observe the rest world, and too often measure ourselves deficient in comparison. And because our devices’ demanding missives keep us always on edge.
This presents a real challenge for society, because the chance of smartphones going away is exactly zero percent. We love our phones just as much as we love to hate them.
Given that our anxiety-ridden reality is here to stay, here’s a list of ways that have helped me most to cope.
Turn down the volume on the digital worldHumans are social animals. Relationships are as essential to our survival as food, water, and exercise. Social media activates that part of our brain that is wired for connection, but it does not nourish it deeply. It’s basically junk food for our psyche. Like junk food, it’s oh-so-delicious while you are eating it, but after gorging you feel kinda sick and kinda guilty.
I let my social media go dormant a year ago, and found I was able to function just fine without it. Granted, I was born before the Internet, so I’m not the prime demographic for these platforms. Actually, I think young people get a bad rap when it comes to smartphone self-control. Having the world in their pocket is not a new or novel experience to them. I have worked closely with a number of young people, and the majority of them are quite good at setting their own limits. But it’s a David v Goliath battle, considering the multi-billion dollar attention industry we are up against.
The point here is that our time and attention are precious, and we should be as stingy with them as we are with the greenbacks in our bank accounts. The more attention we pay to our immediate circles, the more that investment will come back to us. (P.S. If you’re looking for concrete ways to dial back your smartphone usage, check out the “Take Control” section of the Center for Humane Technology’s website.)
Turn up your awarenessWith so many alarm bells piping in through our phones, we become a little bit like trauma victims, in a constant state of hyper-vigilance. After a while, perpetual alertness starts to feel normal. In the process of habituating to overstimulation, we learn to ignore the physical and emotional warning signs that our nervous systems are overloaded.
To reverse this, we have to reacquaint ourselves with our inner sensations, writes Bessel A. van der Kolk, author of “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma.”
“Neuroscience research shows that the only way we can change the way we feel is by becoming aware of our inner experience and learning to befriend what is going on inside ourselves.”
I imagine this kinda like Sherlock Holmes (the Benedict Cumberbatch version) sitting on my shoulder analyzing the crime scene (my crappy mood) and deducing when anxiety struck and what particular worry the bastard used to slay my serenity. Often the worry itself, when removed from the hand of the assailant, is a flimsy little thing, capable of sitting on the self without causing much trouble.
To listen to your inner music, you have to quiet the outer world. This doesn’t mean you have to join a Buddhist monastery. It just starts with reserving some small part of your day to be alone with your thoughts.
Be compassionate toward yourselfThe worst part of my twenties was feeling like the countdown was on for me to make my mark, follow my passion, and define my identity. Instead, my passions were leading me down dead ends, my mark kept washing away with the rain, and my identity was written in a language I didn’t understand.
Come to find out, this is normal (except for that rare bird that has it all figured out from the start). Had I known that, I might have been gentler toward myself. So I’m telling you: Forgive yourself your failings. You will have many, many opportunities to make it right. The road of life is long and winding. Hard as it may be, forgot about the destination. Give yourself permission to enjoy the scenery. Might as well, because wherever you think you’re going, you’ll likely to end up somewhere completely different.
Be of serviceVarious studies have found that when confronted with an unexpected windfall, we feel happier giving it away than we do spending it on ourselves. This goes back to the part about us being social animals. In order for us to live together in tribes, we had to be wired for a certain amount of altruism. Thank goodness it feels good to help others or things would be much, much shittier than they are.
Big or small, any level of helping helps your wellbeing. (My suggestion for one that won’t cost you a thing: choose NOT to honk when another driver does something you deem as stupid. Just don’t. Trust me, you’ll feel better.) Even tending to a pet has been found to lower levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. God knows in Durango we are good at loving our dogs.
Get some sleepHere’s me giving advice I’ve routinely ignored myself. So don’t listen to me, listen to Dr. Seuss.
The news Just came in From the County of KeckThat a very small bugBy the name of Van VleckIs yawning so wideYou can look down his neck.This may not seemVery important, I know.But it is. So I’m botheringTelling you so.A yawn is quite catching, you see. Like a cough.It just takes one yawn to start other yawns off.— The Sleep BookNotice he didn’t a say it takes just one Zzz emoji to set other Zzz emojis off? Just saying.
Katie Burford has worked a social worker, journalist, university instructor, nanny and barista. These days, she’s a mom, professional ice cream maker and writer. Reach her at [email protected], @rockyroadadvice (Twitter) or Rocky Road, 1021 Main Ave, Durango, CO 81301.