Society & Anxiety – The Modern Afflictions.

Just what is it about anxiety that makes it such a malady for our modern society? Prescriptions for drugs for anxiety (and its evil twin depression) are at record highs having doubled in the last decade. One person in eleven is taking a prescription drug for unmanageable depression and/or anxiety while many others remain in the shadows struggling yet still functioning with these afflictions using subterfuge, avoidance and compulsive behaviours just to get by. Some others choose to self-medicate with alcohol or illegal drugs.

But what are anxiety and depression and why are they so prolific and why now?

Anxiety is by no means a modern problem. Freud almost a hundred years ago defined anxiety as “A threat that is objectless, and located somewhere in the future.” Before Freud, existentialist philosopher Kierkegaard penned ‘The Concept of Anxiety’ and even earlier 17th Century philosopher Spinoza wrote of his feelings of “dread.” We can trace the concept of anxiety all the way back to the 4th Century BC to Hippocrates who wrote that anxiety is “a difficult disease. The patient thinks he has something like a thorn pricking him in his viscera; and nausea torments him.”

So, 2500 years down the road the question of anxiety and depression has gained such resonance that medical professionals are looking for answers and fixes as a priority; which has at last created conversation and abundant research about the state of our society’s mental health. No longer are medical doctors convinced that anxiety is a brain disease caused by an imbalance of serotonin or other brain chemicals that can be treated and fixed like a broken leg or a case of the flu with splint or a plaster or a pill….it’s something else beyond the purely medical.

From Johan Hari’s new book ‘Lost Connections’ he quotes Dr Joanne Cacciatore of Arizona State University as saying; “We don’t consider context. We feel that our distress can be separated out from our lives and labelled as a brain malfunction. When you have a person with extreme human distress we need to stop treating the symptoms. The symptoms are a messenger of the deeper problems; let’s get to the deeper problem.” Forward thinking shifting the emphasis away from the medical and onto the neurosis caused by context, environment, significant events and a person’s social situation.

An alternative view which correlates the medical and neurological aspects is presented by writer and clinical psychologist Oliver James who believes that those who had a difficult childhood are the most vulnerable due to growing up in a state of ‘Red Alert.’(Environmental and sociological) This deregulates the cortisone in the brain chemistry. (Medical) Which combines with our ‘Toxic Society.’ (Back to environment and society) which is a precursor for mental health issues. This suggests that we have been putting the medical cart before the societal horse.

From the author and psychologists mentioned it would appear with further reading that we have become stuck in Maslow’s famous triangle which lists five steps of human need from basic requirements to lofty self-actualisation and mental whole-ness. In western culture we are lucky that the vast majority of us have the first two steps covered in that we have the physiological needs of food, water, shelter of the first step along with the safety and security, personal, financial and physical health of the second. It is on the third and fourth steps we find ourselves lacking and exposed as our social belonging and self-esteem are eroded by ‘advancements’ in our culture and society as we are caressed and attacked by technology, schooling, working life and abundance of choice.

The rise of technology has been breath-taking in the past 50 years and as a member of generation X myself I’ve lived through having no land-line telephone to having a powerful computer in my pocket, from a black-and-white telly with 3 channels to 50 inch HD with every kind of program on tap via the internet. Amazing progress, but the darker side is the continual worry that each one of us could be replaced in our work by technology robbing us of purpose, value and respect. Social media connects us like never before, but we forego the human contact with each other, the intimacy of friendship and the ability to really understand one another.

Our schools have become stressful ‘exam-factories’ where overall consolidated results seem to matter more than the individuals in the classroom as ‘league-tables’ and punishments for teachers failing to deliver higher and higher pass rates create an environment of anxiety.

As the cost of living spirals and our working future becomes less and less certain, our families are suffering as both parents need to work longer and harder to remain in the game, to be better and more conscientious than their peers in a results based toxic competition that many jobs of work have become.

To have choice is good, but we have so much that it can lead to obsessive behaviours as we know that, with the amount of choice, if we make a wrong decision we have no-one but ourselves to blame. We live in a society where Tesco stocks 18 types of bagel. Choice is hard, I don’t want to fail.

Could this be then that anxiety is a rational reaction to our environment and situation rather than a broken brain? To again quote Johan Hari. As a person, “We need to feel that we belong, we need to feel valued, we need to feel that we are good at something.” In our culture today there is growing evidence that these basic psychological needs are not being met for many – perhaps most people.