Wed, Jul 31, 2013 - Page 9 News List

We should heed the new age of anxiety rather than bemoaning it

A study calculating the cost of widespread stress and exhaustion fails to explore what really lies behind the prevalence of anxiety and what can be learned from it

By Darian Leader  /  The Guardian, LONDON

If the post-war age of anxiety was supposed to have ended 30 or 40 years ago, a swath of media articles now suggest it has made a dramatic comeback.

A new and widely cited study claims a massive increase in anxiety disorders in the UK’s 60 million-strong population, with an estimated 8.2 million suffering from anxiety, compared with 2.3 million in 2007. We are told that the pressures of modern life must play a large part here, with job stress aggravating the difficulties of urban populations.

The focus on socioeconomic conditions is surely a good thing.

In the 1980s, Thatcherism encouraged a redrafting of work-related problems as psychological ones in the UK. As each person became a unit of economic competition, it was not the market’s fault if they did not get a job, but their own. Injustice in the marketplace was glossed over as individual failure.

Hundreds of books and articles have questioned this without gaining media exposure, so why the visibility of the new research?

I was puzzled to find not a single sentence in the report linking the supposed increase in anxiety to social causes. There was no explanation at all and the headline-grabbing prevalence rate for the UK was estimated from Iceland, Norway and Switzerland figures.

Here, we find a perfect expression of the new mental hygiene movement: Anxiety is grouped together with dementia, stroke and neuromuscular conditions as a “brain disorder,” and the authors of the study urge an approach that uses “comparable methodologies for both mental and neurological illness.” Disorders are listed in terms of their cost to the economy rather than to individual lives, families and communities.

The monetary equation explains the press the report received. In this accountancy of distress, anxiety disorders are estimated to cost the UK about £10 billion (US$15.3 billion) a year, about half of which is the result of lost productivity and early retirement.

The subtext to human suffering here is, of course, the economy. Getting people back to work is what matters, with intervention aimed at excising unwanted symptoms that get in the way of maximum productivity. Rather than seeing such symptoms as signs that something is wrong at a more fundamental level, they are read as local disturbances that cutting-edge drugs will get rid of.

Aside from the absurdity of seeing anxiety as a brain disorder, the logic here is circular. It may be the very equation of human worth with economic productivity that frames the problem. As human beings are increasingly identified with units of energy in the marketplace, is it so surprising that they fall ill, refusing the values of productivity and efficiency that society imposes on them?

The pressures and expectations of the market weigh heavily on everyone. The erosion of long-term stability in employment means that people are expected to throw themselves into any job they find. Every minor task or training exercise must be met with absolute enthusiasm, as if motivation were something that could be turned on or off at will.

Such behavior is impossible to sustain and exacts its toll: depressive feelings, as well as physical and emotional exhaustion at the expenditure of energy on projects we care little about. Motivation loses its roots in our childhood interests and ideals, and becomes something external to us. Hence the oscillation between hyper-motivation and depletion that is so characteristic of the contemporary worker.

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