Our nerves are fried. It does not take much to trigger us into a full blown freak out. We live in what the cultural studies writer Hal Niedzviecki calls a permanent state of anxiety and stress, a steady state of fear and worry. Change is a natural part of life, but in our society today we are experiencing change at a speed that has never been seen before in human civilization. We fear our inability to embrace this change, to be able to take advantage of all the change and as a result we worry that we will be left behind. We fear that we will not be able to get a handle on the future, that we will slip away into extinction. Fear of future failure plagues us in ways we may not even be aware of. One of the main ways is that it takes from us the sense of security, safety and constancy that occurs when living in the present moment.
In their 1970’s best selling book, Future Shock, Alvin and Heidi Toffler captured the feeling of a society that was in transition. They defined future shock as, “the shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time.” In 1970 the Tofflers believed that future shock was a real sickness, which increasingly large numbers suffered from. They called it the disease of rapid technological change. This was forty-five years ago! Imagine, what would they think about the kind of future shock we are experiencing today?
I believe that our racing minds, minds that are continually churning out uncontrollable negative thoughts, uncontrollable anxious thoughts about the future (which, by the way is a main symptom of living in a permanent state of anxiety and stress), is future shock. According to the National Institute for Mental Health, in any twelve month period, 18% of the United States population is struggling with some form of an aggressive anxiety disorder. Major depressive disorder plagues up to 17% of the United States population! Never before has the United States seen such high levels of mental illness. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that the suicide rates among Americans aged thirty-five to sixty-four have increased 28.4% between 1999 and 2010. It appears obvious that all of this innovative change, which most of us more than willingly embrace without question, is in no way good for our mental health.
In his book Trees On Mars, Our Obsession With The Future, Hal Niedzviecki writes about a recent study that was done by Scientists at Yale University. This study revealed that chronic stress and worry actually reduces the brains ability to make an important protein called neuritin. In the journal of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Ronald Duman, a neurobiologist at Yale, and his team report that, “Neuritin produces antidepressant actions and blocks the neuronal and behavioral deficits caused by chronic stress.” When we get too anxious or stressed out our brain stops making as much neuritin. “Once again biology trumps ideology,” writes Niedzviecki. “Our brain’s health depends on a certain level of stability, the knowledge that what happens tomorrow will be pretty similar to what happened yesterday.” (The italics are mine.) This is what I refer to as present moment awareness. Mindfulness.
Today we live with the continually looming sense of the future. We spend most of our time thinking about it and living for it. For hundreds of thousands of years, humans had very little sense of future (and past). Instead we lived in what is referred to as the continual present. Time as we experience it today (past, present, future), is a very recent development in the history of human beings. This is why our minds are literally incapable of absorbing future shock. “We evolved to survive and perpetuate, and this process requires stability,” writes Niedzviecki. “The entire psychological framework of human beings is fundamentally about achieving and maintaining stable environments and social conditions. Without the stability, the brain gives up trying to keep up. Our minds are throwing in the towel, waving the white flag.”
Living in a state of permanent anxiety, depression and stress is what happens when our brain has thrown in the towel. It is important that we realize that as much as we may feel like we need to be doing so, chasing the future isn’t helping us. In fact the opposite is proving true- it is killing us. As someone who works in the field of mental health and encounters this crisis everyday, I believe that it is so important that we become aware of future shock and begin to create for ourselves and our families what the Tofflers called personal stability zones. Forty-five years ago the Tofflers talked about cultivating “de-stimulating tactics” and “direct coping abilities” in order to better deal with and survive future shock. Forty-five years later we talk about the same thing, but now call it mindfulness and meditation.
It is by cultivating present moment awareness (the continual present) that our brains can begin to re-stabilize and return to their optimal, biological and evolutionary functioning. Our brains were not biologically designed to deal with as much rapid change as we are experiencing today. It has never been more crucial for our mental and physical health that we make the effort to counteract the high speed forces of change with more present moment awareness (less attention to the future, which always seems to be pulling at us). Without this effort to be more present, there is no question that the steady state of fear, anxiety, worry, depression and/or stress that we experience is a direct result of future shock.