Social Change, Loss & Anxiety
Heraclitus’s wise words were never more fitting than in the 21st century. The swiftness of change in the modern world is central to the anxiety that many people face at this particular time in history.
The latest statistics from the World Health Organization reveal that anxiety amongst North Americans is at an all time high of 30%, up from about 15% a decade ago. Rapid fire changes in technology, environmental degradation, increasing levels of surveillance since 9/11 and fall out from the financial crisis of 2008 appear to be fueling people’s lost sense of security all around. Some of this change represents real threat on a planetary as well as individual level, leaving many people to conclude that crisis has become the new normal.
Change – good or bad – internal or external to oneself – equals loss of the status quo. And loss of the status quo is at least temporarily disorienting, as it equals loss of control. Human beings don’t like thinking that they’ve lost control, as it makes them feel vulnerable. The human brain can also have trouble distinguishing normal change from serious threat. This is where anxiety starts.
At the same time that we are all faced with the unavoidability of external loss, we human beings tend to cling to the ‘myth of permanence’. According to this framework, our minds try to soothe us by convincing us that the present will last, catastrophe will never strike, and that we will maintain control over much that we actually have no control over.
Dealing effectively with anxiety in the modern era requires an ability to focus on what we can control to make a positive difference in our lives, and the life of the planet, and to recognize what we can’t control, so we can adapt and/or release expectations. I believe it is no longer enough to just focus on ourselves as individuals to overcome the anxiety and grief associated with social change and loss. We must also live in ways that contribute to the preservation of the planet, thereby decreasing the likelihood of catastrophic loss, and preserving our future and that of generations ahead.
Personal Loss & Anxiety
Loss occurs in the lives of all people on a daily basis. We experience varying degrees of grief and/or anxiety in response to lost opportunities, aging, health problems, work difficulties, family changes, relationship challenges, and shifts in our own identity, roles and understanding of who we are. So grief is not just about bereavement, but also applies to the smaller losses we experience regularly.
We feel a sense of anxiety when our belief system – or something we value – is threatened or lost. We also feel anxious when we – and life – don’t live up to our expectations. Or we fear our hopes and dreams may be jeopardized or gone. Grief is the necessary process of emotional pain that – paradoxically – allows us to move into the next phase – acceptance and readjusting to life after loss. Grief over loss, especially the early stages of loss, is often accompanied by anxiety, as our world as we have known it, has changed forever.
Dealing Constructively with Loss & Anxiety
How well we adjust to loss will – to a large extent – determine how peaceful we feel in the long run. At the heart of this potential for calm in the face of loss are two big players – beliefs and perspective.
Belief, Loss and Anxiety
When we lose someone or something important to us, it challenges our world view. To some extent we all get up each day assuming that the world is a relatively safe and predictable place – that our loved ones, our health and our work will continue to be there for us. Loss confronts these beliefs, and we can feel profoundly upset and anxious having our world view altered by loss.
Human beings have a tendency to disbelieve or dismiss those events that threaten the way we see our world. The process of adjustment to loss is not just about mourning the absence of that which has been lost, but also a coming to terms with the challenge to our belief systems and faith. Our ability to cope with such disruptions to our beliefs will impact our capacity to deal healthily with the ‘anxiety of uncertainty’, and rebound from the pain of loss.
Healing from loss involves new meaning making. In particular, we need to accept that the loss has occurred and will likely transform some or all of our world view. We may find ourselves returning to and reviewing the loss over and over again. By repeatedly confronting our losses in healthy doses, rather than avoiding or drowning in them, they become more real. Over time, new beliefs stemming from loss emerge and become integrated into the new reality of our lives. For example, parents who feel at a loss because their young adult children have left home, may come to enjoy the additional freedom and time together that wasn’t available during the child rearing years.
People who are dealing with loss need permission from themselves and people around them to change and adapt to their evolving belief systems and reconstructed lives. This kind of healthy adjustment can help to prevent or reduce anxiety.
Perspective, Loss & Anxiety
Perspective is related to beliefs – our viewpoint – and plays a powerful role in lowering anxiety associated with loss. A perspective that seems to be the particularly helpful here is the ability to stand back and assess one’s situation objectively. This is not likely to occur when the loss is fresh, as we need to experience our emotions first.
Gaining perspective involves being able to pull back emotionally, when ready, and assess our situation impartially by asking questions like “How bad is this?”, “What’s the worst that can happen?”, “What do I still have going for me?”, “Is there any kind of silver lining in this cloud?”, “What do I do now to not let things get worse?”, “What can I control/not control?”, “What can I do to feel better now and in the long term?”
Questions like these help us remember what we still have going for us – that which is not lost; and how to reduce or contain the negative consequences of loss, and begin to rebuild a new, meaningful life in spite of the loss.
Counseling can play a helpful role in reducing anxiety, and providing comfort, reassurance and perspective as people adapt to the reality of their loss. For those experiencing a crisis of belief or faith, counseling can be an essential asset to recovering their psychological well being.
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Glynis Sherwood – MEd, Canadian Certified Counselor, Registered Clinical Counselor, specializes in recovery from Loss, Anxiety, Scapegoating/Bullying, Low Self Esteem, Depression, Grief and Addictive Behaviors. I look forward to hearing from you and helping you achieve the life you want and deserve!
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