As we go through our days dutifully checking off the various tasks on our calendars, we may look around and notice that a few things have fallen by the wayside. Perhaps we haven’t written any blog posts for months, or the supplies we bought for a project we planned last year are still sitting at the back of the closet. Whatever it is, we start wondering where all the time went. We’re likely to tell ourselves, in a familiar modern lament, that our lives have gotten too busy and need to be brought back into balance.

Sometimes we really do get overscheduled to such an extent that we can barely function. But more often, I believe, the actual issue isn’t one of time management at all; it has more to do with all those nagging anxieties at the back of our minds, which accumulate until we can’t turn our mental focus to anything else.

We can make checklists for every imaginable daily task ’til the cows come home—but although that may help to manage the distraction and lack of focus often described as executive-functioning issues, I suspect there’s much more to the underlying problem than simply needing to organize our schedules more efficiently. We live in a hugely complex pressure-cooker society that has caused many of us to become, in the literal sense of the word, unbalanced. That is to say, we don’t feel confident in our ability to balance all the demands our society expects us to satisfy. And so our thoughts start to run in anxious frightened circles that distract us from getting our tasks done, causing us to worry even more—and the vicious cycle spirals downward.

In a bygone era, the natural rhythms of the days and seasons kept our ancestors’ lives in balance. Physically, they worked much harder than most of us can imagine. Their days were filled with strenuous, time-consuming chores as they struggled to bring in enough food to survive the winter. Their fears were much more immediate and concrete than ours: starvation, plague, tribal warfare, being attacked by wolves and bears. But although they experienced miseries that most of us thankfully will never have to face, their tasks were simple and predictable enough so that they didn’t have our modern-day anxieties. Their subconscious minds weren’t filled with worries about what they ought to be doing differently, how well they could measure up to society’s demands, et cetera. Whether they ate or got eaten on any particular day was up to Fate; they made whatever sacrifices they believed would keep the gods happy, and left it at that.

How can we cultivate our ancestors’ untroubled mindset in a world that has become vastly more complicated? I would say it begins with centering ourselves in the moment, so that our thoughts don’t habitually wander along negative paths. Meditation, exercise, and mindfulness can be helpful approaches to banishing persistent worries. They don’t necessarily require large amounts of time; it’s more a matter of arranging our daily routines in ways that provide for moments of peaceful reflection.

This morning, before I sat down to write this post, I got myself a cup of raspberry-flavored coffee and a whole wheat English muffin with raspberry jam. I thought about what good fortune it was to have these small comforts, how pleasant the coffee smelled, and how pretty the raspberry jam looked—bright sparkling red in the morning sunlight, with little seeds all throughout. One can’t simultaneously contemplate a raspberry seed and worry obsessively about some upcoming task or other. That simple fact seemed to be enough, at least for the moment, to bring my entire world into balance.

When I first read Little Women as a child, I had no appreciation for the scene where Jo March burns all her creepy stories about crime and monsters, which she wrote for a tabloid called the Weekly Volcano. I thought it was ridiculously old-fashioned to say that such stories harmed the public morals; and I felt sure that if I had been in Jo’s place, I wouldn’t have meekly burned up my own creations, no matter who disapproved of them.

It wasn’t until many years later that I began to understand what the scene was about. The Volcano isn’t just a clever name for a fictional tabloid; it’s a metaphor that represents all the anger, fear, and other molten-lava emotions bubbling away under the surface of the human consciousness. Because stories first create a dramatic conflict and then resolve it, they can’t be effective without touching the reader’s emotions in one way or another. Thus, an author has to consider what sort of emotional response a story is likely to get. Will the story take its audience for a harrowing stroll on the volcano’s edge? If we choose to dwell on sordid or gruesome material, then we bear some responsibility for the unhealthy feelings we stir up in our readers.

Of course, that doesn’t mean stories should have nothing in them but sunshine and joy; nor are we obligated to preach sermons to our readers. Rather, reading a good book can be like making a good friend. Fictional characters can give us comfort, inspiration, and helpful advice, just as our real-life friends do. Like real people, our fictional friends may have to deal with crime, death, and other less than pleasant aspects of the real world. As authors, we wouldn’t be honest with our readers if we pretended such things didn’t exist. And although monsters and the paranormal may not be literally real, they give us an opportunity to exercise our imagination and gain insight into our society’s collective psyche. Plus, they’re just fun to read.

So I wouldn’t say that any particular genre of fiction is harmful, in itself. What makes the difference is how the characters and images affect the readers’ emotions—and to some extent, the author’s as well. In Little Women, Jo’s quest to produce thrills by ‘harrowing up the souls of the readers’ left her feeling disturbed by morbid thoughts because she spent so much time focused on the world’s grimmer aspects: ‘She was living in bad society, and imaginary though it was, its influence affected her…’

If we’re honest with ourselves, both as authors and readers, we know what sort of emotions a story stirs up. If the main characters were real people, would we invite them into our homes for a visit, or would we nervously close the blinds and make sure all the doors were locked? If the latter, then we may find that we would benefit from choosing our fictional acquaintances more carefully.