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Living in an Age of Anxiety

Overwhelmed by anxiety and image insecurity a friend’s 20-year-old daughter recently quit her university course and withdrew to her bedroom where she took to self-harming. Company and environments in which she felt emotionally secure became harder to find, until she stopped venturing out at all together.

‘Alice’ is one of a growing number of people, young and old, but disproportionately under 30 years of age, who feel unable to meet the expectations and challenges of contemporary life — whether real or imagined.

Precise figures of those suffering from mental health issues around the world are difficult to collect because many people, particularly in developing countries, do not seek treatment. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that globally 264 million people suffer from some form of anxiety disorder: around 5% of all women and 2.6% of men (this is probably inaccurate as men are less likely to admit feeling anxious for fear of being labeled ‘weak’).

What is causing this epidemic? Indeed is it possible to talk about ‘common causes’ or is each case unique?
Whilst human beings may all be ‘different’, as anyone who has travelled knows, the human condition is universal, and throughout the world people respond in similar ways to comparable circumstances, influences and conditioning factors. In addition to a shared nature all of us are increasingly subjected to the stimulants, pressures and values that are more or less the same. Individual cultures are being eroded, replaced by a standardized approach to living. This process of Cultural Homogenization is being brought about systematically using various interconnected tools of control:

At the heart of the conformity movement is the global socio-economic system together, hand in hand, with globalization. People everywhere are victims of the values promoted by the Neo-Liberal view of life. The volume of the materialistic mantra depends on where one happens to be living, but the doctrine and conditioning forces remain largely the same. The other primary factor is education; the basic principles of Neo-Liberalism – profit, i.e. success, individual ambition over group well being and uniformity, have permeated and polluted the classrooms of schools and colleges in countries throughout the world.

Add these pernicious factors together and it becomes evident that the ground has been laid for a particular type of global socio-psychological conditioning to take place, and in a way previously unheard of when societies were more autonomous.

Conformity and Desire

The fact that the human condition is universal, and the socio-economic structures that people are being conditioned by similar, makes it possible not only to discuss common psychological causes of anxiety, but to broadly identify the societal elements that create the circumstances in which anxiety and other mental health issues, flourishes. One could go so far as to say that when adopted – remembering that the process takes place unconsciously – much of the conditioning being poured into the minds of humanity make anxiety virtually inevitable.

This is no accident: an anxious, discontented population is the (unspoken) aim of the architects and devotees of the system; contentment, independence and mental equanimity are the enemies of Neo-Liberalism, because they reduce the desire for sensation and stuff, and the whole corrupt paradigm is maintained by limitless consumerism.

Everyone is subjected to the values, methods and dogma of the machine, but the under 30s, are more exposed to and it seems at greater risk from its poisonous impact. They face colossal pressures from various sources including family, the media (including online) and education – where conformity, competition and systems of reward and punishment pervade many institutions. This trinity of control is extremely unhealthy, creating the conditions in which comparison and imitation flourish and notions of superiority — resulting in arrogance and pride — and inferiority — feeding fear and anxiety, self-doubt or in some cases self-loathing — flower.

Anxiety flows from and is a form of psychological fear; psychological fear is woven in to the fabric of desire and is fed by insecurity, and the current socio-economic systems encourage both. Insecurity of all kinds is fed, from the insecurity of having a roof over one’s head, food to eat and in some cases, access to health care, to insecurity about whether one is good enough, the perfect daughter or son, clever enough, beautiful enough, tall enough, witty enough, etc., etc.

According to WHO statistics young women are particularly at risk of anxiety, and one of the most common types suffered relates to appearance. This flows from a wider stereotype of what a ‘successful’, desirable, complete, woman looks like. A recent report based on research conducted in 13 countries found that almost 70% of women and girls suffer from appearance anxiety as a result of reductive media images of women. Throughout Asia for example, cosmetic advertising all too often show images not of a healthy Indian or Sri Lankan woman, but of a light skinned model. This highly inappropriate representation is driving many women in such countries to use highly damaging (physically and psychologically) skin lightening or bleaching creams in an attempt to mimic the billboard beauty; in the process their complexion is often irrevocably scarred.

In Britain a report by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Body Image found that girls as young as five are worrying about their size and appearance. They state that, ‘body image dissatisfaction’ (BID) can lead to “physical, emotional and societal problems;” children suffering BID “are less likely to engage in learning and participation in school.” They lose confidence and simply give up. The report goes on to say that, “over half of bullying experienced by young people was because of appearance.”

The focus on appearance, on image, on achievement and on being a particular type of human being flows from a view that emphasizes ‘becoming’ as opposed to ‘being’. It is an approach that is tied to desire and functions in relation to psychological time. It is this movement in psychological time that allows the seed of anxiety to be planted and grow. The idea that one ‘becomes’ something – ‘something’ that corresponds to a projected and, because of fear, an embraced ideal; becomes happy, popular, married (preferably with children), becomes richer, more successful, etc., etc., gets the job, the car, the house, the woman, or man. The process of becoming is insatiable and therefore endless; an itch that forever demands to be scratched.

The projected image arises from a narrow idea of how life should be lived, what one’s aspirations and principles should be; it is an image spooned into the mind from childhood (as the APPG study found), directly and indirectly. And whilst independent thinking and creativity are warmly spoken of, the pressure to conform is intense – the media in all its forms and education being the principle institutions utilized in maintaining conformity. Far from stimulating creative thinking and cultivating an environment in which fundamental questions may be raised, in many countries education has become a powerful tool for conditioning the minds of young people and a feeding ground for the world of work. As Noam Chomsky has said, “Society simply reduces education to the requirement of the market. Students are trained to be compliant workers.” He goes on to state that “a deep level of indoctrination takes place in our schools.”

In addition to competition, reward and punishment and conformity the principle coercive element in maintaining the conditioned stereotype and causing anxiety is desire. Desire lies at the very root of the chaos and is the principle factor in the problem of anxiety.

Every aspect of the present system is designed to strengthen desire; desire for pleasure, desire to live a certain lifestyle, to look a certain way, to have whatever or whoever it is that one desires. Desire to be liked, loved even, ‘love’, (so the story goes) that is achieved by conforming to the prescribed pattern and thereby becoming likeable, or worthy of love. Love itself has been replaced by desire, pleasure substituted for happiness and freedom traded in for choice.

The main reason why desire is perpetually inflamed is in order to maintain the current socio-economic model, which depends on limitless consumerism for its survival. Secondly constant desire keeps the mind in a state of unease – of discontent. This suits the beneficiaries of the machine well, for in such an agitated state a population can be more easily controlled, and crucially, made dependent upon various remedial treatments; alcohol, medication — legal and illegal — shopping excursions, holidays and the like, all of which are provided by the architects of the system.

The result of this cocktail of conditioning is an environment of insecurity, suppression and anxiety. If anxiety flows from desire and psychological time, it is equally true that freedom from anxiety comes about when there is the absence of desire and from attachment to the objects of desire. Within the current socio-economic environment this difficult task is made even harder, but as long as desire dominates the system that feeds on it will be perpetuated, anxiety will persist and discontent and conflict, within the individual and society will continue.

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Graham Peebles is a British freelance writer and charity worker. He set up The Create Trust in 2005 and has run education projects in Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and India. 

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