In 1837, Hans Christian Anderson published what has since become a classic in children’s fairy tales, ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes.’
In case it’s been a while since you’ve heard it, the story tells of two crooks who arrive at the court of a vain emperor. Posing as tailors, they offer to make him a magnificent set of clothes of magical cloth that they claim is completely invisible to those who are stupid or incompetent. Thinking that he’ll be able to identify those who aren’t up to his intellectual standards, the emperor hires the con artists at great cost. While they pretend to work the emperor and his officials visit to check on the progress. They each see that the looms are empty but pretend to admire the beautiful cloth to avoid being thought of as a fool. When the tailors declare the clothes complete, they pretend to dress him and he sets off on a procession through the city. The citizens, also not wanting to appears as fools, feign admiration until a guileless child blurts out that the emperor is, indeed, naked.
There’s a term in social psychology that describes this kind of herd mentality. ‘Pluralistic ignorance’ means that everybody’s going along with an idea, not because it’s true or even makes sense, but simply because everyone else is. In other words, it’s normal, so it must be true and it must be okay.
The dictionary defines ‘normal’ as meaning usual, typical or expected. Since worry and anxiety are everywhere, everyone experiences them and no one questions them, worry and anxiety must, by definition, be normal.
But there’s a big difference between ‘normal’ and ‘useful’ or ‘desirable.’ There’s also a big difference between ‘normal’ and ‘unavoidable.’
You see, obesity is also normal. As are racial profiling, underfunded schools and potholes in the roads. But in each of these cases we recognize that we’d be better off without them and good people are working hard to make them abnormal, if not altogether extinct.
As much as they might be normal, anxiety and worry are neither desirable nor unavoidable and we’d be much better off without them.
Humans are hard-wired to respond to dangerous situations. It’s called a negativity bias and it evolved over millions of years. When we were wandering around in the same neighborhood as hungry saber tooth tigers, we were well served by a brain that made us notice, and respond to danger.
The incidents of imminent danger in our lives today, though, are incredibly rare. The saber tooth tigers are long gone so now, instead of a charging mastodon, our negativity bias alerts us to the insulting Facebook post or the (extremely remote) possibility of a bad medical diagnosis.
Where fear is a useful response to real and present danger, worry and anxiety are responses to threats that are neither immediate nor well defined. Social status, partisan politics and your finances in retirement are much more vague, distant and hard to comprehend than a fast-approaching bus. In fact most of the threats you perceive are only imagined.
Yet our bodies can’t tell the difference between a threat that is real and imminent and one that’s merely an illusion. Our systems are flooded with adrenaline and cortisol, our bodies go on high alert, muscles tighten, breathing increases, heart rate goes up and we’re ready to take on the attacking barbarians. Even if they are only imagined.
If that ‘code red’ status lasts too long, nasty things begin to happen. Too much cortisol compromises your immune system, making you more susceptible to disease. Sustained anxiety has been linked to diabetes, osteoporosis, heart disease, panic attacks, hyperventilation, gastrointestinal problems, depression, headaches, irritability, muscle aches and loss of sex drive.
Whether you’re worrying about money, other people’s opinions of you or that mole on your arm, sustained worry and anxiety can not only make you sick, they can kill you.
Just like the emperor, strutting butt naked down the street, we’ve all been duped into believing that we’re supposed to worry. Throughout our lives we’ve been trained and conditioned to be anxious. Our parents, teachers, coaches and the entire world around us frets, so it must be the thing to do. It’s a time- honored practice that’s been going on for so long it’s become an unconscious habit.
Since no one ever questions the wisdom or usefulness of worrying, we assume it’s both normal AND natural.
When we do question the wisdom and usefulness of worrying we discover that it’s neither wise nor useful. In fact there are four major drawbacks to anxiety: 1) It feels awful, 2) it accomplishes nothing, 3) it makes us sick, and 4) it blocks our innate human potential. Four great reasons to let it go.
While our biology may date back millions of years, our intelligence has grown exponentially. When we discover that a behavior no longer serves us we have the ability to change it. Since there are no advantages to chronic anxiety, the wise person would conclude that they’re better off without it.
To gain control over and ultimately kick the worry habit completely the first step is to become consciously aware of our anxiety. We need to observe ourselves in the act of worrying.
This process of learning to become aware of when we’re worrying and then identifying the fear that lies behind the worry, teaches us to pull the worrying habit back out of our subconscious, daily ‘normal’ and into the realm of ‘front-of-mind.’
Once we’ve witnessed ourselves admiring the emperor’s non-existent clothes, it becomes much easier to establish a whole new, much healthier ‘normal.