Want to Feel Less Anxious? Give Up Some Control

One psychologist’s case for embracing uncertainty

David H. Rosmarin
Elemental
Published in
4 min readJan 6, 2020

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Photo: Aleli Dezmen/Getty Images

AAccording to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than three in 10 Americans will have a full-blown anxiety disorder over the course of their lifetimes. Worse, nearly one in four of these cases will be characterized as “severe,” meaning a person is unable to function from day to day or becomes suicidal because of anxiety symptoms.

Among younger Americans, the problem is even more significant. In a recent Harvard Medical School study of more than 67,000 college students on 108 campuses, one in five students used self-injury to cope with anxiety, and nearly one in 10 had tried to commit suicide. In this age of anxiety, more young people die from suicide each year than from cancer, heart disease, stroke, AIDS, birth defects, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease combined.

These trends are shocking. But more importantly, they seem to make no sense. People are wealthier, more technologically advanced, more productive, and more connected and have fewer reasons to be afraid than ever before in human history. What’s more, today nearly one in four Americans take psychiatric medications. Why are we so anxious when we are (by many counts) better off and have mass access to mood-regulating psychopharmacology?

I don’t know for sure, but from my vantage point as a Harvard psychologist and the founding director of the Center for Anxiety in New York, the biggest factor is our obsession with control.

People cannot stand to fail or experience setbacks. In the 1950s, 22% of the country lived in dire poverty, versus less than 10% in 2018. Yet we helicopter-parent our children through adolescence and even young adulthood to make sure they do not experience failure. As a result, children don’t expect to struggle, and when they do, their internal worlds are shaken to the core.

Relatedly, people cannot tolerate uncertainty. We constantly need to be “in the know” with minute-to-minute predictions about financial markets, political trends, professional sports outcomes, and the weather. And despite the fact that such predictions are notoriously incorrect, we monitor them with bated breath. People would prefer to predict the future and be dead…

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David H. Rosmarin
Elemental

Director of the McLean Hospital Spirituality & Mental Health Program and Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School