Inflated Responsibility, Control, & Mental Disorders
One characteristic of anxious people is our inability to stop thinking. We stay up late, thinking and worrying and worrying and thinking until we can't escape our own brains. A small degree of anxiety has been shown to help people achieve success. However, too much anxiety has the opposite effect, rendering those who suffer briefly incapable of doing anything. The drive for success can be steeped in fear, and fear goes hand-in-hand with anxiety.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder affects an estimated 6.8 million American adults, or 3.1 percent of the population. In a March, 2019 study published in the International Journal of Cognitive Therapy, researchers in Japan found that people who reported intense feelings of responsibility were susceptible to developing generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) as well as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
Three types of "inflated responsibility" were identified: the responsibility to prevent or avoid danger or harm, a sense of personal blame for negative outcomes, and the responsibility to think about and solve problems.
Associate Professor Yoshinori Sugiura of the University of Hiroshima, Japan,
is studying how to reduce pathological responsibility in patients. “I ask [patients] ‘Why are you worried so much?’ and they answer ‘I can’t help but worry,’ but they seldom spontaneously think ‘because I feel responsibility.'" Simply acknowledging this difference could be enormously helpful for those who struggle with mild, moderate, or severe anxiety.
It is easy to feel unduly burdened by things that are outside our own control. Huge issues can feel irreconcilable (climate change, gun violence, poverty, racism, sexism, the economy, etc). When the world around us is full of pressure and consumerism and fear and bad news, it is easy to internalize that pressure/consumerism/fear/bad news. It's also easy to feel personally responsible for reconciling these issues, or to feel responsible for causing them. These feelings of responsibility can be good-they keep roofs over heads, guide us to stand up for things we believe in, and fight for the rights we believe we should have. But sometimes, we take on responsibility that isn't rightfully ours.
People with OCD and GAD both feel overwhelming, crushing responsibility and guilt for negative outcomes, and feel pressure to solve problems that they simply cannot remedy. OCD is characterized by unwanted and repeated thoughts or feelings (obsessions) that drive them to do something over and over (compulsions) in an attempt to relieve anxiety. GAD is characterized by frequent, hard-to-control anxiety.
Control is an integral aspect of mental health. Too little control, and your mental health (and subsequent physical health) will suffer. Too much control, on the other hand, is detrimental to mental health too. A personal and relevant example of this is for those with eating disorders: the control of food and/or appearance is often a way of coping with a lack of control elsewhere. Anxiety too, often springs from the need to constantly be in control. An inflated sense of responsibility is commensurate with the need for control, and the need to control everything is often based in fear.
Dr. Sugiura found that those with inflated responsibility were more apt to worry (ie, exhibit anxious thoughts or behaviors). Simply identifying one's personal limits and recognizing the feeling of responsibility, in a therapeutic setting, may help assuage anxiety in patients with mental disorders. However, there is a pretty pertinent takeaway for people who may not be clinically diagnosed, but are simply apt to worry. Realizing the realistic limits of your responsibility will help lessen anxiety and increase happiness.
For example, you are not responsible for the emotions, comfort, or happiness of other people, especially at the detriment of your own. You are, however, responsible for not intentionally hurting someone, lying to someone, etc. See the difference? You're not responsible for single-handedly ending climate change, but you can recycle, use less plastic, etc. There are very few things that are actually within your control, and recognizing that is a critical, healthy realization.
Below are some tips to help reduce inflated responsibility, anxiety, and stress.
1. Practice Mindfulness & Deep Breathing. Studies show that mindfulness, including meditation and focusing on your breath, can significantly reduce anxiousness. Read some deep breathing exercises here.
2. Spend Time Outside. A recent study found that spending just 20 minutes in nature can significantly reduce cortisol levels (the hormone responsible for stress).
3. See a Therapist. If you have been diagnosed with GAD, OCD, or any other mental illness or disorder OR even if you're extra stressed out, it may be time to see a professional. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help you process your emotions, understand your thoughts and feelings, and develop healthy coping strategies. CBT has a success rate of reducing symptoms of anxiety by 50-75%.
4. Track Your Symptoms. Write down when you feel anxious, the activities or circumstances that spurred the anxiety, and any anxious thoughts. This will help reveal your triggers and can be done on paper or on one of these nifty apps.
5. Exercise! Moving your body is proven to help reduce anxiety and boost your mood. You've heard this, I've heard this, everyone's heard this. Bonus points for exercising outside.