In his new memoir,Monkey Mind, Daniel Smith describes a life spent in near- constant panic. He’d have recurring nightmares about premature death. He’d wrestle over the decision between ketchup and barbecue sauce. He’d sweat, a lot. In Monkey Mind—the title comes from the Buddhist term meaning “unsettled, restless”—Smith, now mostly recovered though still no stranger to the panic attack, uses humor and blunt-force honesty to describe what is an ever-present, and very American, condition: worry.
These days, everyone’s a worrier. Nearly one in five Americans suffer from an anxiety disorder. If there were an international war of worriers, we’d be winning: According to a recent World Health Organization study, 31 percent of Americans are likely to suffer from an anxiety issue at some point in their lives. Compare that to second-place Colombia, where the anxious top out at 25.3 percent. Even those in developing countries are less likely to fret: According to the 2002 World Mental Health Survey, people in developing-world countries are up to five times less likely to show clinically significant anxiety levels than Americans. Until, that is, they move here.
“There has always been an anxiety about the unknown,” says Aruni Nan Futuronsky, Kripalu Senior Life Coach and senior faculty member in the Healthy Living programs. “But worry is a very American quality. As Americans, we have a hard time finding ways to trust life. And when the system around us isn’t particularly inspiring or hope-generating, the human dilemma becomes magnified.” And it’s not just the fully-grown who are afflicted: A UCLA study found that first-year American college students are tenser than ever before.
Why worry about worry? Though some worry can be useful—our intuition can often cause us to have concern over something we perceive as subtly unsettling—most worry serves only to distract us. And, of course, we know that emotional stress can beget physical stress. “It’s essential to our overall well-being, as individuals and as a culture, to practice being present in life with some contemplative backdrop,” says Aruni. This can be as simple as asking yourself, What do I love to do? “One woman said to me, ‘I’m a painter, but I don’t paint,’” says Aruni. “Kind of funny, but also tragic. And universal. Way too often, the very things we love the most are the ones we push away. We don’t give ourselves what we want. We don’t think we deserve to. But prioritizing what we love to do is a major factor in balancing the mind.”
Which means, of course, consistently coming back to self. This will, in turn, help us plug into our intuition, creativity, spontaneity, and maybe even inject a little chill into our nail-biting tendencies. “Whether it’s walking home from work or throwing the ball around with the dog after dinner, mindfulness takes us out of the worry about what’s going to happen tomorrow—or next year, or the year after that—and into the moment at hand,” Aruni says. “The mind is not, by nature, quiet. But no one will quiet it for you but you.”