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

Anxiety can play a similar role.

At its most basic level, anxiety is the sensation that something is demanded of one. An exam at school or a work deadline can generate this feeling, as can a fruitless visit to a job center. There is the pervasive sense of an expectation or impending judgement. That human beings have become what philosopher Nina Power calls “walking CVs” can only exacerbate such problems. We are obliged to list and magnify our abilities to meet the impossible demands of the marketplace. Added to this is the ever increasing pressure to conform to a norm of physical and mental health.

The imperative to remove anxiety may do more harm than good.

Sigmund Freud noticed the protective function of anxiety as an indication of danger. He distinguished it from shock, the encounter with a violence or sexuality that we had not been prepared for.

The first question to ask is less “How can we get rid of anxiety?” than “What function does anxiety have?” Take the example of childhood phobias. Clinicians know that the protracted phobias that occur between the ages of three and six are usually best left untreated. They show that the child is reorganizing their world, creating new limits and boundaries through the animal or place they are afraid of. When this is done, the phobia will disappear. The child has transformed anxiety into fear. Fear is always fear of something, but anxiety involves a more nameless dread. The causal diagnostic approach lumps fear and anxiety together, yet if someone has succeeded in becoming afraid of something it means that they have been able to treat their anxiety.

This inflects the question of the socioeconomic framework of anxiety. If the competitive field of employment can intensify the feeling of demands and expectations, when we explore individual cases we find that something more is at stake. It may take time to discover, but there is always a specific figure beyond the demand — a boss, a partner, a bureaucrat. There is the acute sense that they want something from us, but we do not know how they see us. This makes it more difficult to respond.

This is perhaps anxiety at its purest. Jacques Lacan compared it to being confronted with a giant praying mantis while wearing a mask — a mask the wearer cannot see. We have no way of knowing if the mask makes us look like prey. If we knew, we could take evasive action, but not knowing leaves us paralyzed. These processes are unconscious, but anxiety will not be. We feel it, but cannot grasp its cause. This opacity is exploited by offering the label of “anxiety disorder” and explained in terms of brain circuitry.

Careful listening and dialogue can help the person gain an understanding of their situation, but there can never be any guarantee that anxiety will not come back — less invasively perhaps and less destructively — but occupying nonetheless a crucial place in human life.

Anxiety is the sign that we have temporarily lost the persona and reference points we count on in daily life. Suddenly we are alone and in danger. In this sense, anxiety never lies. Before rushing to get rid of it, we must reflect on what it is there to do and what it would mean to live without it. Rather than bemoaning a new age of anxiety, we need to examine more closely the anxieties of our age.

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