Ken Sanders ducked into his car and plopped into the driver’s seat with a heavy sigh.
The Dunellen, New Jersey resident had an hourlong commute to work ahead of him – 45 minutes if he was lucky. But as he grabbed the steering wheel of his black BMW, he felt the panic start to set in.
His mind raced through all the possible scenarios: A large van juts out into the busy highway to merge, forcing him to swerve and lose control. A car speeding through an intersection runs a red light and smashes into him.
Sanders could feel his chest tightening, body shaking, heart pounding – as if he had just collided with that speeding car. In reality, he was still sitting in the driveway with the engine off, white-knuckling the steering wheel due to the mental illness he’d been managing for decades.
Sanders, 63, has struggled with different versions of his anxiety disorder for most of his life. The research shows he’s not alone.
The prevalence of anxiety has skyrocketed in the U.S. over recent years, affecting more than a third of adults every year. Anxiety is among the most common mental illnesses in the country.
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But despite the popular assumption that diagnosis and treatment should go hand-in-hand, mental health experts say anxiety is not in itself a problem. It is inherent to humans, to sense danger or worry about consequences. People do not need to get rid of anxiety, experts say, but rather, they need to learn how to live with it.
“We have bought into a false perspective on anxiety that you should never have it,” said David Rosmarin, the founder of the Center for Anxiety. “We think that low levels of anxiety are a disease, a disorder.”
Rosmarin is among a growing number of anxiety experts who have a differing take: “We have to stop getting rid of our anxiety and change our relationship with it instead.”
Allergic to anxiety
Anxiety is natural and a normal reaction to stress, danger, or something new, said Rosmarin, who authored the book “Thriving with Anxiety: 9 Tools to Make Your Anxiety Work for You.”
Normal feelings of nervousness can snowball into an anxiety disorder if a person becomes excessively fearful and finds themself avoiding situations that they know might trigger or worsen their symptoms.
Anxiety disorders in the U.S. are peaking at their highest level in decades. Some people have attributed this panic to the 24-hour news cycle and the steady stream of posts on social media that cause people to compare themselves to others. But experts say the core of anxiety is beyond these surface triggers.
Society has taught Americans that anxiety is unnatural, and this idea makes them less amenable to tolerate being uncomfortable. Their fears are greater than the actual threat, said Dr. Justin Kei, medical director for outpatient behavioral health services for Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey.
“You judge yourself for feeling anxious, catastrophize about it, and then your anxiety gets worse. And that cycle is what I believe is creating the anxiety epidemic today,” Rosmarin said.
Pursuing success instead of happiness
Experts also say modernity has bred anxiety – not just in the technologies developed but also in what it values.
Much of the world, especially in a highly competitive and capitalistic country like the U.S., consistently rewards external success such as fame and fortune but fails to reward internal successes like self-development, emotional stability, and other less publically perceivable goals.
This has led many to chase accolades at risk of genuine personal growth, fueling anxiety and diminishing self-worth when those sometimes unrealistic expectations aren’t met, Rosmarin argued.
“We’ve lost out on these aspects of humanity,” he said. “We’re pursuing happiness, ironically to the detriment of our mental health.”
This could partially explain why young people, who are typically at the start of their careers, are more likely than older adults to experience anxiety. Federal survey data showed that 50% of people 18 to 24 reported symptoms of anxiety or depression in 2023, according to a KFF analysis, compared with 29% of people 50 to 64 and 20% among those 65 and older.
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Matthew McHale, 34, a pricing and revenue manager from Mahway, New Jersey, experienced this firsthand in his early twenties. Professional pressure, perfectionism, and the compulsion to succeed among his peers drove him to a diagnosis of anxiety disorder about 10 years ago.
“The goal was to move up as early as possible and learn as much as possible. Success meant pleasing my boss, receiving accolades,” said McHale. He said he was always thinking about how he would “achieve more than the next person.”
The insecurities and pressures he felt professionally manifested in his personal life. McHale began doubting himself in daily activities like grocery shopping or going to a restaurant. It felt like he was in a constant state of “fight or flight,” he said. It paralyzed him.
After years of medication and therapy, McHale learned to value emotional and mental well-being over professional success. Exposure therapy helped him tolerate daily situations where he was confronted by his greatest fear: Failure.
He now accepts that failure is a part of being human, and he uses therapy techniques to prevent his anxiety from snowballing.
“It’s okay to not feel okay,” he said.
Fixing our relationship with anxiety
For years anxiety experts have made the case that anxiety wasn’t necessarily a problem, but the idea didn’t resonate broadly. Recently, the notion is making inroads that the best way to manage anxiety is to learn to live with it.
They say cognitive behavioral therapy and other treatments can help people understand and accept that life involves unpredictability, lack of control and feelings of nervousness are not inherently bad.
“People want to feel good and when we don’t feel good, that makes us nervous,” said Dr. Kai-Rai Prewitt, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Adult Behavioral Health. “Just because it feels uncomfortable, doesn’t mean it’s wrong.”
It’s taken more than eight years, but Sanders, the nervous driver, said he’s learned how to talk himself out of the spiral that used to trigger his anxiety. Instead of sitting in the parked car, dreading a particular intersection, he thinks about how he can take extra precautions against dangerous motorists.
He waits a few seconds after the light turns green and looks both ways before proceeding to drive through the intersection. His anxiety empowered him to be a better driver.
Sanders now views his anxiety like his bad knee, which stemmed from an injury decades ago. He wishes he didn’t have it but he’s learned how to manage it.
“The knee doesn’t define who I am,” he said. “And neither does anxiety.”
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Anxiety is everywhere. This solution from experts may surprise you.