Our Comfort Crisis: The Lack of Struggle is Real
The first month of 2024 is almost over, and many prognosticators say the coming year will be challenging. Predictions of war, disease and economic instability abound. And with 2024 being a major election year, we are already seeing dire predictions of doom and gloom from both political parties and their presumed candidates.
As with any new year, the predictions of self-proclaimed experts may or may not come to pass. And since we cannot know the future, we should be on our guard against the tendency to be anxious in the present. I am not suggesting that we do not pay attention to unpleasant news or important warnings. What I am saying is that we should purposefully develop the discipline of reducing our anxiety, handling our emotions so that our emotions don’t handle us.
Anxiety Has Increased
Unfortunately, our ability to calm ourselves and not feel anxious is declining. According to several studies, the percentage of Americans who say that they feel anxious “some or all of the time” has increased by double digits over the last 10 years. This increase was apparent to researchers even before 2020 and COVID-19. Those who say that they often feel anxious also say that they often avoid comforting the issues or thoughts that trigger their anxiety.
Why is this? While the causes of our anxiety are many, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests we are more frequently turning to an abundance of entertainment and controlled substances to cope instead of confronting unpleasant feelings and thoughts head-on. The writer Michael Easter calls our increasing tendency to distract ourselves with material consolations our “comfort crisis.” In his 2021 book, The Comfort Crisis, Easter explores how, during a 33-day Artic caribou hunt, he released how dependent he had become on material distractions and avoidance behavior to cope with everything from work pressures to anxieties over money, politics and personal relationships.
I believe Easter is right; we are facing a comfort crisis, and we should do something about it. Happily, we don’t need an exotic big game hunt to strengthen our ability to avoid distractions, tackle hard things, and reduce our overall anxiety.
Facing a Comfort Crisis? Here’s What You Can Do About It
Here are five things that, if practiced regularly, I can guarantee will clear your mind, settle your spirit, and steady your resolve to tackle whatever the day, week, or year might bring your way. I can guarantee positive results because, over the years, I have practiced each of these five things (with varying degrees of success or failure), and yes, they really work.
1. Pray, and Do It Daily
This one is so obvious that, like getting up from our desks to stretch every hour, I think we often miss it. Praising and adoring God daily is THE key to reminding ourselves that no, everything does not depend on us, and yes, there is a larger plan at work all around us. The benefits of being aware of God’s plan, of orienting ourselves towards a meaning-centered life, are so powerful that the Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl developed an entire therapy for his anxious patients (called “Logotherapy”) grounded in this reality. In addition to your Bible, I strongly recommend that you prayerfully read Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning, in which he relates how, while being held in a Nazi death camp, he observed that those who focused on the personal choice of connecting to God’s plan and His greater-meaning for their life survived more often than those who did not.
2. Exercise Several Times a Week, and Exercise Hard
A couple of years ago, I read a study that reported that 70% of pet owners admitted to taking better care of their pets than themselves. This did not surprise me. One of the many deficits of our age is that we are loathe to recognize our dependency upon one another, including the dependency of our future self on the actions of our present self. Physically speaking, America is in bad shape, and we need to take better care of ourselves and acknowledge that our mental well-being is wholly tied to our physical well-being.
According to our best science, we need about 150 minutes of moderate weekly exercise to stay healthy. If finding time to exercise adds stress to your stressful life, consider this: You need just 75 minutes of vigorous exercise each week to stay healthy. If you exercise hard, so you are out of breath and sweating, you can half your total workout time per week. Take physical care of yourself, now and in the future, because our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, and we are not our own (1 Cor. 6:19).
3. Fast, Even in Short Bursts
A 2021 study concluded that fasting, even as little as 12 hours (say, no eating between 7:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m.), reduces anxiety and depression with no physical fatigue. Our obesity epidemic is directly related to our “eating our feelings,” which is literally feeding our anxiety. We need to work at disconnecting emotions from food and relearn what eating is for: nutrition and health.
4. Put the Media Away, for Hours at a Time
Many studies have found a link between heavy social media use and an increase in depression and anxiety. There are those, like Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, who now worry that heavy internet use (whatever the activity) is rewiring how we think, and not in a good way. The problem is the more we rely on technology to do for us what we should do for ourselves, the less able we become able to do that thing. Thus, the more we rely on that “hit” from our phones and computers to make us feel better, the less capable we become of doing something for ourselves when needed. Talking ourselves off the emotional ledge is an essential life skill that we should learn early and practice often. If you doubt this, ask parents with a newborn how much sleep they get if the baby has not learned how to soothe herself.
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Put your phone away for hours (not minutes) each day. Make meeting places like the dinner table and your spousal bed “media-free” zones. To help get over the anxiety that you will feel when that device is not in hand, start with a little humility. Neither you nor I are so important that we need to know everything happening in the world all the time. We are most important when we are with the people we love and who love us. Be present for each other, and everyone will benefit.
5. Take Cold Showers or, Better, Ice Baths
I will need you to trust me; I saved the best for last. Like fasting, cold exposure brings tremendous physical benefits and also combats anxiety and depression. It also teaches you how to control your urge to run for comfort when distressed.
Cold exposure has become very popular lately, and several companies now sell expensive cold immersion tubs and tanks. You do not need thousands of dollars to practice regular cold exposure. Start daily by stepping out of the water stream at the end of your shower and then turn off the hot water. Place one leg under the cold water for 10 to 30 seconds, then step back again. Repeat this process, increasing the amount of yourself you expose until you can thoroughly shower your front and back in the cold water for two to three minutes.
The water needs to be only at or below 58 F° for you to get the full benefit of cold emersion. If your shower water is not colder than 58 F°, that’s alright. Start with cold showers and progress to filling your tub with cold water and enough ice to drop the temperature below 58 F° (try using two one-gallon ice cream buckets that you filled with water and leave in the freezer for an endless supply of ice). Slip in for a 3 to 5-minute soak two to three times a week. Ideally, aim for at least 10 minutes of cold exposure (total) per week.
As someone who ice-bathes three times weekly, I will admit that cold immersion is hard. Every instinct tells you to run the other way when you step into ice-cold water. But that is precisely the point of the exercise. Learn to breathe and talk yourself through the panic until you can do it. And doing it is the point. We cannot know how hard the future might be. But we know that practicing hard things in the present is our best preparation for what might come. As the Proverb (14:23) goes, “All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.”
Dr. Jeff Gardner holds an MA in history and a Ph.D. in Communication and Media Studies. For over a decade, he has worked in media, writing and taking photographs for various publications and organizations across North America, Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East. His work has been featured in numerous national and international publications and broadcasts. He teaches courses in media, culture and government at Regent University. You can reach him at jeffgardner.online.