by Alexander Anghelou
BRUSSELS – The world we live in today has become high pressure and very fast-paced, to the point where we need to optimise our way of managing our lives. People often forget that many of the objects we use daily are less than 100 years old.
The car started to replace the horse in the early 1900s. Another landmark in our history is the first commercial flight that took place in the early 1930s only 80 years ago. The first television broadcast was only 70 years ago. Apple released its first personal computer 30 years ago. Mobile phones started to become widespread in the mid to late 90s at the same time as the internet and this is only 15 years ago. Smart phones started appearing around the year 2000 and now tablets are starting to become more popular. Can you imagine your life today without these inventions? In the last 100 years, society has changed faster than ever before.
In many ways, these inventions have optimised and accelerated mobility, flow, and quantity of information. The accelerated rate of change has accelerated the pace of life in an exponential way and this trend is expected to continue in the coming years. Aside from the many benefits these technological advances have offered, many have become overwhelmed and are unable to manage this very fast pace of life.
This is true on at least two levels. Firstly, the pace of life is affected by the compression of time. In the past one would send a letter and the exchange would take weeks. Today, we send an email which is received within five minutes and a response is often expected within the hour, considering that the email reaches the desired person anywhere and at anytime. This means that the pressure on people has increased due to the elimination of the time constraint. Since people are no longer protected by the time it took for things to get done, they are exposed to increased pressure which can lead to an array of anxiety disorders if mismanaged. Today one needs to replace the old time constraint with the recognition of one’s own limits.
Secondly at a more cognitive level, since more is done in less time, many find themselves overwhelmed by an accumulation of unaddressed thoughts that spillover and create difficulties such as insomnia, heightened stress levels, panic attacks, and burnout which are demobilising.
A good analogy of today’s society is the 80s game of Tetris. This game consisted of the simple task of aligning blocks horizontally without gaps. When such a line was created, it would disappear, and any block above the deleted line would fall. As one progressed through the levels, the game would accelerate and this simple task of aligning blocks would eventually become unmanageable.
Being in tune with the environment we live in is a statement that is not new, but there is a big distinction that one can make between today and 100 years ago, when many aspects of the environment in which people lived were relatively constant with a very slow rate of change.
Today, the rate of change is so rapid that the environment has become a very dynamic variable which leads people to seek other constants or anchor points to have a sense of security and stability.
The illusion of obtaining full control over the outcome of things is a popular and an enticing belief to have. It gives short-term reassurance but results in long-term anxiety and helplessness as one realises that their ‘constant,’ their lifesaver in a sea of turbulent water is in reality not there. Another important constant that also became a variable is the sense of family, community and the wider social network. A solid family and community structure creates an interdependence which leads to the creation of a mutual support network. When people find themselves abroad away from their families this support network is very loose and sometimes even inexistent. This can lead to a feeling of loneliness and insecurity.
Looking at the characteristics of society today, one quickly realises that most people are not equipped to deal with today’s reality. In the past people naturally adapted to their environment over time, today people need to actively adapt and re-adapt to the continuously changing environment.
To accelerate adaptation one needs to constantly expose themselves to the environment, so as to be up to date with its fast changing characteristics as well as to accept its features. Having discrepancies between the environment and your beliefs will result in an anxious state caused by this incoherence. Being in-tune with the environment also means developing skills that improve our management of life and therefore improve our quality of life.
One such skill is learning to manage our thoughts. A thought is just a thought nothing more, nevertheless, a thought can have a significant effect on our emotions whether it is true or not. This is why it is so crucial to learn to evaluate thoughts, to see if these thoughts are true or false, important or not.
Not all thoughts deserve our full attention; many thoughts do not deserve any attention at all. Learning to filter and let go of thoughts allows us to streamline our thought process which allows us to function in the fast pace world.
Just as we prioritise and filter thoughts we also need to do the same with daily tasks while taking into account the amount of time we have at our disposal as well as other constraints and limitations. This way we can defuse a significant part of the pressure we experience. In the past, the slower pace of life would forgive our flawed way of managing things, today’s fast pace of life does not. When managing one’s environment and self well, one feels empowered and confident which leads to feeling secure and stable.
This way, one becomes the constant and is able to live optimally in the rapidly changing environment of our time.
Alexander Anghelou is a Cognitive Behaviour Therapist working in Brussels and London.