I’ve wanted to go to Africa since I was a kid. I grew up in the era of Michael Jackson’s “We Are the World” and as he, Stevie Wonder and many of my favorites sang, images of starving children in Africa rolled by on the screen. My heart broke for those kids who were sitting in ditches, sucking on fingers with distended stomachs. I wondered how they’d get through another day and thought “how worried these kids must be!” They have no idea where they’ll get their next meal.
Meanwhile, I sat comfortably in a house, with a television, and food in my belly. WORRYING. Worrying about whether I’d have friends in class (when socializing was my best subject) and if I’d pass the third grade (when my grades were never an issue).
I felt guilty. How can I be worrying about these things when there are starving kids in Africa?
Fast forward a few decades. I arrive in Kahuria, Kenya on a service trip. I finally get my chance to relieve myself of guilt for those “foolish” worries I had as a kid and what I found were enthusiastic children in brightly colored, mismatched outfits wearing large smiles. They laughed, played with my hair. They sang songs. They weren’t worried. In fact, they were happier than I had been as a child.
This baffled me. How can kids living in survival not have anxiety? They don’t know where their next meal is coming from or if it will come at all. Diseases run rampant, many parents die young and with so much uncertainty, how can they be singing? Laughing? So at ease?
The answer didn’t come quickly. In fact, I lied awake several nights before the very thing I explain to parents, kids and yes, even myself, came back to me: Anxiety doesn’t exist in the rational. Anxiety lives in the irrational. When there is no threat of real danger, when a B on a test doesn’t mean actual death, when being ignored by a friend isn’t the end of life as we know it, anxiety exists.
The problem is that the irrational feels real. It really feels like a B on a test might be the end of your life or that you can’t survive being ousted from a friend group. The brain doesn’t discern between what is actual survival and what is feigned. That’s our job. The amygdala (our fear center) just does what it does: it alerts us of danger. Our job is to discern between what is really danger and what is our amygdala getting riled up for nothing.
The way I explained this to a teenager last week is like this: when you are getting ready to walk out into the street and you hear screeching tires your amygdala fires to let you know there is danger. But what if you looked up and saw a guy holding a machine that made the sound of screeching tires next to the road? You’d realize the threat wasn’t real, it was this strange guy with an affinity for scaring people.
That’s the power of rational thinking. It’s a struggle for those of us who have anxiety but the only real way to manage it. Those kids in Kenya were dealing with real screeching tires. Most of us here in the U.S. are dealing with the machine. For more information about how anxious and depressed we are compared to other countries click here.
Once we realize it’s a guy with a machine, we can use coping strategies to calm ourselves back down and realize there is no danger. The next time you get riled up about something that isn’t really jeopardizing your survival think about that guy with a machine and give him a little chuckle. It’s been working for me.