Anxiety Culture

We’re an anxious lot.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 40 million Americans ages 18 or older have an anxiety disorder. Ask anyone you know what’s worrying them, and you will invariably get a laundry list of things. You only have to watch the nightly news, or what I’d like to call the evening conjecturing, to get apprehensive. Sure, there are the reports about things that actually happened, but quickly following those are all the possible crises awaiting us. They’re everywhere, and “facts” about them generally begin with, “Experts believe…”

These experts tell us that this flu season will be the worst, with the highest numbers of projected deaths in history, that we have a “potential oral health crisis coming”—or a “state of decay,” as CNN recently reported—or “four ways the debt crisis could affect you.” The War on Terror and the War on Drugs keep us in a perpetual state of combat, one that we’re not sure any of us could really define. News anchors invariably get that grave tone in their voices as they proceed to tell us how our coffee could be killing us. Then everyone goes off coffee until the following year, when other experts discover there was never anything wrong with it in the first place and that actually, it could even improve your health.

If there’s a possibility that things could go wrong, we’ll definitely hear about it, even when it’s the most natural thing in the world—like having a baby. Billions of babies have been born to date, and yet you’d think we’d only just discovered this process. A pregnant woman goes in for her first doctor’s visit, and after being politely congratulated, she’s handed a list of things to do and not to do. If she hasn’t been taking prenatal vitamins, she has to start immediately—let’s just hope there’s not been any damage yet. Then she’s told to stay away from this, have a few ounces and no more of that, absolutely refrain from this and by all means get every vaccination possible, even rabies, because well, have you seen Portland dogs recently? Women’s bodies are designed to figure out the whole baby thing. That’s why the little things are born every day in the most remote locations of the globe. But a doctor’s lists of warnings seem far more trustworthy. And frightening.

So, why are we so afraid of everything, even the most natural things? Like death. It comes to everyone. It’s the one thing we can be absolutely sure about. Most of us are petrified of it and anything that gets us closer to it, like old age. Why?

Barry Glassner has some thoughts in his book The Culture of Fear. He observes that,  “Politicians, journalists, advocacy groups and marketers continue to blow dangers out of proportion for votes, ratings, donations and profits. Fear mongering for personal, political and corporate gain continues unabated.” Fear sells. Long ago, people discovered that one of the best ways to make money was to get consumers to believe they weren’t safe, they needed more, they would never have enough, be enough and certainly never be happy without…you fill in the blank.

What we’re left with is a society that is captured by fear, most of it unfounded. If we really considered the things we’re anxious about, we’d almost always find they were built around the words “what if.” What if we don’t get a job when we graduate? That’s a favorite being thrown around these days. What if we don’t find love? What if we get wrinkles? What if we’re not beautiful or strong enough? What if nobody cares if we’re alive?

Anxiety grips us like an iron claw and throws us right into the open arms of the willing profiteers who are selling whatever it is we really need to feel better. The funny thing (not funny at all) is that when it comes to “what ifs,” we rarely ask the flip side. What if I find someone who loves me for me? What if I get the job I’ve always dreamed of? What if I have a healthy baby? What if I am perfect just as I am?

It doesn’t seem to work that way. When was the last time you obsessed about something going really well in your life? It leads us to the question: Is it safer to be anxious? Are we more comfortable being anxious?

Without going all therapist, it seems like it. Our brilliant brains are extremely capable of protecting us. As long as they imagine the worst possible scenario, we’ll be prepared for it when it comes crashing down on our heads. In the same way, we don’t let ourselves think about the best that could happen so we can save ourselves from the devastating disappointment when it doesn’t come true. Makes a lot of sense. Really despairing sense.

I’m in no way downplaying the real and debilitating causes and effects of anxiety. I know a little too well how those work. I’m not suggesting there’s an easy solution and a simple answer either. What I do wonder is, what would happen if we stopped buying into what everyone’s selling? What if we saw every supposed threat to our survival as another brilliant yet disgusting marketing ploy, with dollar signs dumped into some rich old fart’s pockets? What if we started imagining the best that could happen to us every time we worried about the worst? We wouldn’t get everything we wanted, but perhaps risking joy and the possibility of fulfillment would begin the process of rewiring our brains.

Believing the best might one day wring us free from the paralyzing safety of fear and place us on a road that doesn’t have a foreseeable end and is filled with potholes and winding corners. But that road will take us through life instead of letting us watch it pass by.