Why is everybody suddenly so anxious?

by | Aug 6, 2019 | Become More Awesome, Health

Takeaway: We constantly tell ourselves stories about who we are. If you’re not careful, this tendency can stress you out and make you pretty anxious.

Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes, 19s.

As we go about our lives, we tell ourselves a lot of stories about the kind of person we are and the life we lead. And once we believe the stories we tell ourselves (as well as the ones we tell the world about who we are), we want to keep perpetuating them. Today, we find ourselves participating in more stories than we ever have before, which is making us all anxious as hell.

There is nothing inherently wrong with stories. Storytelling is what makes us human. Setting aside the stories we tell ourselves for just one paragraph, as a culture, we’re surrounded by a ton of stories that we collectively believe to be true. Hell, most of society functions well because of the stories we believe to be true. Money, the borders between countries, and legal contracts are just stories, plain and simple. They exist, and are important, because we collectively believe that they exist and are important. Flying across a geographical border, you won’t see a dotted border line denoting where one country turns into another. Show a $100 bill to a tribe of people who have never seen money before, and they’ll be baffled by why you believe a simple piece of paper to be so important. A contract has meaning only with groups of people that believe in the contract and agree to live by it. For the most part, believing in stories such as these allows us to live better and more productive lives.1

We also participate in many stories on a personal level. Most of these stories are attached to our identity (who we believe ourselves to be). Especially in the digital world, it doesn’t take much for us to become attached to these stories…

  • A random funny tweet you send out goes viral, which gives you further validation that you’re funny, and leads you to try to tweet funny things in the future. You’re a funny person!
  • You post some pictures of you working out to Instagram, and after getting a ton of likes, you overanalyze how you look in every picture you post after that one. You’re a fitness influencer (kinda)!
  • After your colleagues tell you how great it is that you’re so responsive to messages, you turn on alerts for every email that comes in on your phone, and keep on top of all of the messages that come in on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Slack, Gmail, and every other app. You’re a responsive person!

Before living such complex digital lives, we had fewer stories to maintain. We were a wife, husband, daughter, parent, tradesperson, person of faith, atheist, avid reader, world traveler, or a coffee aficionado. Today, we occupy these stories and so many more. We’re now also a blogger, networker, and someone who stays on top of everything going on in the world. We’re someone who loves Apple products, and dislikes the current administration. We’re someone who is on top of what our friends are up to on Facebook, follow everyone’s career paths on LinkedIn, and are hyperresponsive when new email messages come in. The online world doesn’t just provide us with things to do—it provides us with new ideas for who we believe ourselves to be.

On top of providing us with new stories, the digital world helps us to perpetuate our existing stories in ways that we’ve never been able to. We’re a world traveler, and so we constantly post updates to social media about the exciting lives we lead. We’re an avid reader, so we share constant updates and quotes from the books we’re in the middle of. We want to be seen as someone who is really into coffee (like, really into coffee), so we post photos from cafes all over town. The digital world helps us believe, and become attached to our stories in ways that we have never been able to before. We live our lives in the open, curating how others perceive us, and as a consequence of this, how we perceive ourselves.

But here’s the part that can lead to a lot of anxiety: when you believe in a story about yourself, you live and die by that story. After all, your identity is attached to it! When you think you’re funny, and a hilarious tweet of yours gets no likes or retweets, you feel bummed out. When you’re someone who loves traveling the world but you haven’t been able to afford to go somewhere new, a part of you feels hollow. When you’re a coffee aficionado and a popular coffee blogger shares something you posted, you feel euphoric. When you gain a few pounds and can’t fathom posting about that on your Instagram fitness page, a certain part of your identity is shattered—perhaps an identity you weren’t so attached to before Instagram came along.

Anxiety comes from thinking we need to maintain all the stories we’re juggling. With our digital lives we now have more stories attached to us than ever before—and we also feel the need to constantly perpetuate the stories we believe in.

But here’s something else to consider: very few of the stories you occupy and perpetuate online actually matter. Your interests will come and go, and as a result, so will the things you post about. You’ll gain and then lose a few pounds every so often, and your life will also change in ways you could never anticipate. All of this is fine. It’s more than fine, it’s just the way things go.

It’s okay to visit a fancy cafe and just enjoy a cup of coffee. It’s okay to go to the gym and not post about it anywhere. It’s okay to travel somewhere and live in the moment; soaking in the views and the people without worrying about maintaining your online stories. In fact, doing this is better, because you get to dive into experiences more deeply.

Stories are powerful. The human mind is wired to believe in them, and live inside of them. But believing in too many stories about yourself is a recipe for stress and anxiety. Anxiety comes when your thoughts get tangled up with the stories you tell yourself.

Pay attention to the stories you tell yourself and the world around you. They might be stressing you the hell out.

  1. Credit to the fantastic book Sapiens for providing these examples, and for making the case that storytelling is what makes us human. 

Written by Chris Bailey

Chris Bailey has written hundreds of articles on the subject of productivity and is the author of three books: How to Calm Your Mind, Hyperfocus, and The Productivity Project. His books have been published in more than 40 languages. Chris writes about productivity on this site and speaks to organizations around the globe on how they can become more productive without hating the process.

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