Could Authentic Community Be a Solution to Anxiety?

Have you ever experienced that pit-in-your-stomach type of worry, or found yourself nervously biting off your newly manicured nails? Or how about hiding out in a bathroom stall because you were so overwhelmed and couldn’t catch your breath?

These are all common human experiences that for many happen every day, and often make living life normally feel impossible. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., every year affecting 18.1% of the population, which translates to 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older or 18.1% of the population every year.

And the above statistics are only what is being reported. Can you imagine how staggering the numbers would look like if we took into account all those who are currently suffering in silence?

Anxiety (according to Webster) can be defined in a few different ways:

  • Apprehensive uneasiness or nervousness usually over an impending or anticipated ill.
  • An overwhelming sense of apprehension and fear often marked by physical signs (such as tension, sweating, and increased pulse rate).
  • A strong desire sometimes mixed with doubt, fear, or uneasiness.

I’m sure all of us have felt any one of these symptoms at one time or another and, as a result, have found ourselves trapped in a constant cycle of frustration and helplessness. It’s not uncommon for someone with an anxiety disorder to also suffer from depression and vice versa. Nearly one-half of those diagnosed with depression are also diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.

This speaks to that cycle of frustration: “I’m anxious and then I feel depressed about it which only makes me more anxious”…sound familiar to anyone? If so, you’re definitely not alone.

To further prove this point the research shows that 6.8 million adults are suffering with Generalized Anxiety Disorders, 6 million with Panic Disorder, and an astounding 15 million with Social Anxiety Disorder.

With numbers like these it’s clear that we are knee-deep in an anxiety epidemic.

As a counselor some of the work I do are with teenagers. As I was talking with one of them just last week, they were sharing how anxious they had been feeling, and went on to describe it by saying it was like someone was flipping pancakes in their stomach.

I giggled with the individual when they said this because although I’ve never explained it that way, I could so perfectly relate to the feeling. Everyone’s experience with anxiety is unique but so relatable.

This conversation led me to remember a TED talk I watched in grad school by Sebastian Junger, a journalist from New York City. He shares how he had been on multiple tours in Iraq, documenting the status of the war, and after returning, found himself back in NYC having a panic attack in a subway station.

He had no idea how to explain the sudden burst of fear and anxiety that had come over him, and at the time he didn’t connect his experience in Iraq with what his Doctor ended up calling, short term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Upon receiving this diagnosis, Junger began researching PTSD. From his research, he discovered a fascinating fact about the Navahoe Indian tribe and their community. His research showed that over the years when warriors from this tribe would return from battle, there had never been any report or evidence of any one experiencing PTSD or any related symptom.

Junger concluded that, “Maybe what determines the rate of long term PTSD is not necessarily what happened out there during war, but rather the kind of society you come back to. If you come back to a close, cohesive, tribal-like society you could recover from trauma rather quickly. And if you come back to an alienating modern society you could run the risk of being traumatized your entire life. Therefore, maybe the problem isn’t our veterans but rather our society.”

Junger bookends his talk by sharing two very interesting facts that seem to give us clues about what may be behind this epidemic of anxiety in our country. He states that the Israeli military has a remarkably low suicide rate of 1%. This low rate has been attributed to the fact that returning soldiers don’t come back from war to immediately get thrown into a civilian environment, but they first spend time with those who have also returned from war and can understand the experience they’ve just endured.

He then shares about research that’s been conducted on lab rats that shows how after experiencing  trauma and then placed in a cage by itself–isolated and alone–the rat exhibits traumatic responses almost indefinitely after the incident has happened. However, when a lab rat is instantly placed with other rats after its traumatic experience it recovers in a couple weeks.

With all of this in mind, what could we say about why our society is riddled with anxiety?

I remember when I lived in Chicago I would ride the train in the morning to go to work, and even though you were basically about to kiss the stranger next to you because you were squished in the train like sardines, no one dared to look at each other or, God forbid, talk to one another. Everyone was on their phones or maybe reading a book, but no one was willingly engaging with each other.

I wonder if this epidemic of anxiety could have roots in the disconnectedness in our society? A severe and saddening lack of authentic community.

I’m not suggesting that this is the only source or reason for anxiety, but I am saying it could be one of the factors perpetuating this experience for so many people in our country.

We can all agree that life is hard. So, could it be that anxiety begins to form and take root in the heart who is all alone, without any loving community to take refuge in?

Again, I’m not suggesting that surrounding yourself with loving and genuine people is the end-all-be-all, and that anxiety will magically disappear as a result of good relationships. But I am saying that it can provide refuge, a safe place to recover your heart and life. It can be a channel of healing and health after a season of pain and heartache. It can insulate with grace and love in moments of turbulence, and can soften the loud and fast noise of racing thoughts.

Research says that one of, if not the most powerful aspects of counseling is the therapeutic relationship between the counselor and client. I know first-hand that I can’t solve another person’s problems, or erase the painful experiences of their past, but I can provide them with love, acceptance, and understanding in the moment–and that is what I would call authentic community.

So, I wonder if we sought to find this loving and grace-filled community if we would also discover our symptoms of anxiety lessening? I wonder if we would find solace in the midst of our troubles and a renewed strength to find healing for our hearts? I wonder if there would be less pancake flipping in the stomachs of our teenagers? I wonder.

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