Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Age of Angst

I grew up in the 50s and 60s, the height of the Cold War. That was the time when the MAD or Mutually Assured Destruction paradigm hadn't yet quite taken hold. It was the Dr. Strangelove era when planners thought a nuclear first strike - by us - might just work.

Where I lived we got the air raid sirens ever Saturday at noon. The batteries of Nike Ajax nuclear-tipped surface to air missiles would gracefully emerge from the ground on their gantries to face skyward.

We didn't even get the "duck & cover" training in our schools. I suppose they figured we were just too close to a "ground zero" target to have any chance of survival. My buddies and I, all of 10 or 11 years old, deliberated and most of us decided that there was no point heading for the basement. Might as well just stand out in the front yard and get vaporized.  And, with that, life went on.

Sure it got a little tense during the Cuban missile crisis but that was the sort of thing that brought home the reality of maybe getting nuked. Life went on. There was a river to swim in during the summers. Backyard rinks to skate on in the winters. Ball games and bicycles. In terms of mental health I think we were coping admirably.

That was then. "Then" is no more. All we had to deal with back then was the risk of sudden nuclear annihilation. Compared to today, that was kids' stuff. It really was.

As The Guardian's Simon Copland writes, anxiety has become our way of life today and it's reached epidemic levels.

It always hits me in the gut first. I often feel it first thing, my stomach twisted in a knot, my brain deciding it doesn’t want to deal with the day before I even wake up.

Sometimes my anxiety will fester around a particular thing – a cascade of worry about my work, health, social life, or often a simple decision I have to make. This worry becomes totally paralysing, with hours spent focusing on nothing else but this one issue. At other times the anxiety hits for no reason, a desperate feeling of dread that I cannot explain, nor wash away no matter how much I try.


Consult the growing medical discourse around anxiety and you will get an increasingly clear picture of what causes the disorder. Beyond Blue states that factors such as a genetic predisposition, personality traits, the existence of stressful events, physical health problems and substance abuse can all lead to an anxiety disorder. Other research has also found biological causes, with an imbalance of certain neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine and epinephrine in the brain likely being a trigger.

This research provides an essential picture of the nature of this growing epidemic– confirming anxiety as a core mental health issue and not just an “everyday event” that we all go through. For me it has created some comfort. I have a familial history of mental health problems, and at the times when I’m inexplicably paralysed with anxious thoughts it is often useful to tell myself that my neurotransmitters are simply firing a little funny that day. Yet it’s also clear that anxiety disorders are something much bigger than a simple biological condition.


As noted before, stressful life events – whether it is the loss of a job, the death of a family member, or the breakdown of a relationship – are one of the major causes of anxiety disorders. What’s changing is that these events are becoming a continuous existence for an entire generation. Increasing job insecurity, housing stress, economic and income instability, and a future of climate change, environmental destruction and conflict, have turned stress – and in turn anxiety – into a way of life.

Just as significant stressful events are shown to cause anxiety disorders, research suggests that this long-term stress has a similar impact. For example, research from the University of Michigan found in 2009 that stress from job insecurity is worse for your mental health than unemployment. Similar data has been found regarding housing, with research from the Swinburne-Monash Research Centrefinding a strong correlation between different forms of housing insecurity and mental health problems such as anxiety. Many researchers also believe that when it comes to climate change we are undergoing “a collective anxiety that is insidious, even if we haven’t managed to connect all the dots”.

Yet, as we face this epidemic we must also confront the social conditions behind it. Economic, income, and housing insecurity, alongside the plague of social isolation, is causing a generational mental health crisis, primarily situated in anxiety disorders. Finding long-term solutions therefore can only occur when we are willing to tackle these social causes.

George Monbiot sees the Era of Angst as an inevitable outcome of neoliberalism ushering in the fulfilment of social Darwinism.

A recent survey in England suggests that one in four women between 16 and 24 have harmed themselves, and one in eight now suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Anxiety, depression, phobias or obsessive compulsive disorder affect 26% of women in this age group. This is what a public health crisis looks like.

If social rupture is not treated as seriously as broken limbs, it is because we cannot see it. But neuroscientists can. A series of fascinating papers suggest that social pain and physical pain are processed by the same neural circuits. This might explain why, in many languages, it is hard to describe the impact of breaking social bonds without the words we use to denote physical pain and injury. In both humans and other social mammals, social contact reduces physical pain. This is why we hug our children when they hurt themselves: affection is a powerful analgesic. Opioids relieve both physical agony and the distress of separation. Perhaps this explains the link between social isolation and drug addiction.

Experiments summarised in the journal Physiology & Behaviour last month suggest that, given a choice of physical pain or isolation, social mammals will choose the former. Capuchin monkeys starved of both food and contact for 22 hours will rejoin their companions before eating. Children who experience emotional neglect, according to some findings, suffer worse mental health consequences than children suffering both emotional neglect and physical abuse: hideous as it is, violence involves attention and contact. Self-harm is often used as an attempt to alleviate distress: another indication that physical pain is not as bad as emotional pain. As the prison system knows only too well, one of the most effective forms of torture is solitary confinement.

Anyone can see that something far more important than most of the issues we fret about has gone wrong. So why are we engaging in this world-eating, self-consuming frenzy of environmental destruction and social dislocation, if all it produces is unbearable pain? Should this question not burn the lips of everyone in public life?

This does not require a policy response. It requires something much bigger: the reappraisal of an entire worldview. Of all the fantasies human beings entertain, the idea that we can go it alone is the most absurd and perhaps the most dangerous. We stand together or we fall apart.


Toby said...

I think that's looking backwards with rose coloured glasses.

The Mound of Sound said...

Not at all, Toby. Even with the prospect of nuclear Armageddon, we didn't have to cope with the insecurity, inequality and existential challenges that confront young people today. The research cited bears that out. I did plenty of fairly dangerous things in my youth but I never endured the angst that young people today must tackle. I'm pretty sure you didn't either.

Toby said...

Mound, every generation has to fight its war so to speak. The difference you speak of is that we weren't encouraged to indulge in self pity. That may have been good fortune for us more than anything.