Anxiety Is a Feature, Not a Bug

Food for Thought

As we sat down for our outdoor lunch in Queens, Aaron asked me why I keep reading the news about Ukraine, given that there is nothing I can do about it. Good question.

I understand Aaron’s argument: Why think about something I have no control over? It would do nothing but exacerbate my anxiety. It’s irrational in the sense that Albert Ellis defined it.

In today’s digital world, there is a sense that we are locked up in our thoughts, disconnected from the physical world, which elevates the latter to an almost mythical status. We feel “doing something” must be physical, like joining a street protest or, better yet, joining the Ukrainian army.

But what motivates us to do something physically is our thoughts. Without thinking, we could cause more damage than good. At 54, with no military training, if I mindlessly showed up in Ukraine, I would be wasting their time. Whether “doing” is in your head or with your body makes no difference in terms of impact.

Sure, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help manage your anxiety, but its effectiveness has convinced our society that any thought that causes anxiety should be expelled from our minds. This, in turn, has led to the sense of entitlement that anyone who causes an anxiety-inducing thought should be expelled.

Anxiety is a feature, not a bug to be eradicated. If a fact or idea makes us anxious, our automatic response shouldn’t be to block it. CBT is a coping mechanism for those who cannot control their anxiety. The point isn’t to eliminate anxiety entirely.

At the beginning of the war, the media coverage was more factual. Now, it’s full of articles and videos designed to reduce anxiety. More important than knowing the facts is eradicating self-doubt, for which negative news about Russians and positive news about Ukrainians are amplified. The Russian media is doing the exact opposite. It has become much harder to gather facts.

This is the same mechanism that creates political bubbles between red and blue states in the US. CBT has given us scientific justification to care more about our anxiety than the truth because, ultimately, our desire to know the truth isn’t “rational.”