Does your world feel off-kilter at the moment? If so, you’re not alone. Whether you’re worried about the political situation, the climate, or changes in your neighborhood, health, or career prospects, there is a sense of unease in the air right now. And you’re not imagining it, either. A friend’s doctor reported seeing a sharp uptick in anxiety, depression, and stress-related symptoms in the past year. She prescribed a hiatus from news and social media, but while that might reduce news-driven anxiety, it can also make you feeling more disconnected and powerless.
So, what do you do?
In his book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Sebastian Junger cites a study conducted in Northern Ireland during the height of the conflict there. The study found that rates of depression and suicide dropped by 50 percent in Belfast around the time of the 1969 riots when the situation was at its worst. This is in line with other research showing improved mental health during wartime and other disasters when people pull together and help one another. However, in County Derry, an area outside the main Northern Ireland conflict zone, rates of depression increased. Researchers believe people in this region felt helpless because they couldn’t do anything to help those caught in the fighting.
The solution to feeling helpless and anxious about things that feel out of our control seems to be to get involved. But not all of us are cut out to be activists and the “things you must do now” list can feel so overwhelming that it’s easier to shut down and hide.
But, if you’re feeling like you can’t fix the world, I encourage you to do something.
Humans are wired to help one another. In fact, selflessness is one of the things that distinguishes us from other primates. Doing something good for someone else, especially when it’s done with no expectation of anything in return, boosts our levels of serotonin, the chemical that makes us feel happy. A recent study, The Neurobiology of Giving Versus Receiving Support, noted a marked positive effect on areas of the brain related to stress. In other words, doing good makes us feel great.
Alright, enough nerding out on the brain science stuff. Here’s the upshot:
Get out there and do something small for someone. Smile at a stranger in the street, hold a door open for someone, give someone quarters for their meter, or buy a sandwich and a cup of coffee for a homeless person. If you want to up your game, offer to drive an elderly neighbor to a doctor appointment, walk a busy friend’s dog, or drop off some extra groceries or a meal for someone who’s been ill.
It may not seem like much, but these small shifts could make a difference in someone’s day and dramatically improve yours. Try it, and let me know how it went.