I wrote some months ago, in essays called “The Hard Way” and “The Battleground of Virtue," how important it is for mental health to have real challenges. I’ve had reason recently to return to that issue.
First, some background. Many in America are suffering from anxiety and resultant panic attacks. Medical News Today describes anxiety disorder this way: “Situations that should elicit no negative emotions all of a sudden seem life-threatening or crushingly embarrassing. At the widest end of the wedge, anxiety can arrive as a symptom of another mental illness, such as panic disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, phobias, or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).”
The Anxiety and Depression Association of the United States calculates that 18.1% of the population suffers from some form of anxiety. There has been some debate if medically diagnosed anxiety has been increasing. The numbers are certainly going up, but whether that reflects a change in actual new cases or more people being diagnosed and treated is unclear. However, researchers agree that anxiety is more strongly correlated with wealthier countries, with 1.6 percent of the population in low-income countries experiencing it, 2.8 percent in middle-income countries, and 5.0 percent in high-income countries like the United States.
While there is disagreement about why anxiety is connected to higher-income countries, and research is at best suggestive rather than conclusive, there are some theories that have gained traction.
The pursuit of wealth, status, and success over community and family.
Loneliness associated with people living on their own and motivated by individualistic pursuits.
Exposure to harmful chemicals and air pollution.
Time spent on social media and screens in general.
The generally stressful nature of our lives, with instantaneous exposure to world news, pace of change, deadlines, etc.
Some thinkers would add specific sources of anxiety to this list, like climate change.
Until I’m proven wrong, I accept all of these as potential contributors to anxiety, in addition to genetic and evolutionary causes that have directed the selection and survival of the people alive today. But whatever the cause, there is no question that many people, young people especially, spend their days struggling with both low-level anxiety and full-blown panic attacks.
I know of a young American woman who suffered from panic attacks. They struck when she was at a funeral, or around people with whom she had a complicated relationship, or just overwhelmed with a sense of powerlessness in the face of the problems she saw around her. The attacks were debilitating and embarrassing, and the possibility of their occurring created its own anxiety, which led to her being reluctant to go outside and interact with other people.
Despite them, she decided to accept a position as a volunteer in a war zone. Since beginning her work, she has narrowly missed being shelled and has witnessed death, displacement, injustice, hunger, and unimaginable violence. She has never once had a panic attack in the year since beginning her volunteer work. There are many possible explanations, but apparently the most compelling to her are these:
There is less disjunction between her feelings that the world is messed up and the world outside her. Anxiety striking in someone’s living room, while having dinner and watching television, is baffling and upsetting; feeling anxious when bombs are falling around you is normal and healthy and doesn’t cause you to doubt your sanity.
Now, rather than feeling like Cassandra prophesying disaster to a comfortable society that doesn’t believe her, she finds that everyone around her recognizes the same immediate dangers.
She feels she has important work to do in response to the problems around her. In America, she didn’t know what to do; marches, protests, and petitions seemed pointless.
Energy that previously went to worrying, with no physical outlet for the worry, now is used to do work, find food, and stay safe – very much a physical outlet.
Community occurs naturally, as a means of survival. She is less isolated than she was when she lived in America. Other people support her, and she supports them, because they have to.
All of this reinforces what I wrote in those two earlier essays, that ultimately our species is happier when challenged to behave in the ways we evolved to behave: to protect ourselves and others, to struggle for our survival, to live in community, to eat less and “relax” less and instead feel that surviving each day is a triumph.
So what do we do about this realization? I’m not recommending that psychiatrists get out their prescription pads and write orders for travel to a war zone. Surviving a war zone exacts its own psychological toll, of course – plus the influx of medical tourists to war zones would be really annoying to the people fighting for their lives. But is there a way to apply the wisdom that this woman has gained to the lives of people remaining in our wealthy country? Where can people find the challenges they need here? How can they reconcile the vague unease they feel with the illusion of comfort and success all around them? What can they do?
I don’t have a single answer, although I wish I did. It’s obvious that individuals are powerless to change the deeper problems of our society. But at the least, we can revisit the list of reasons for the growth in anxiety and see how each of us can reverse them.
Get off the hamster wheel
We can try to disengage ourselves from the pursuit of wealth and status and invest instead in our families and other relationships. The woman in the war zone has done this, accepting subsistence living and an uncertain future in order to invest in people. This is hard. People who do this face scorn for a lack of “achievement” and worry that they won’t be able to provide for themselves if they get off the hamster wheel of economic competition. So parents who want to stay home, extended families who want to live together, “underachievers” who take less competitive jobs in order to leave time for other pursuits – they look like failures or at best like unrealistic hippies. But it may be, if they disengage for the right reasons and with the support of a community, that they are happier and healthier than the wage slaves who are driving themselves toward an unreachable goal.
Spend time with people
The second cause listed above was loneliness. How can we live in a more intimate community? It might be difficult to find people who share the values of community, but it can also be difficult to force ourselves to tolerate living more closely with others. We are products of our society, and most of us have no training in how to be part of a close-knit group. But we don’t have to move into a commune; we can join groups with common interests, like hiking clubs, sports teams, craft groups, and book studies. We can visit or call family members more. We can volunteer to help others who are lonely, in homeless shelters, crisis pregnancy centers, nursing homes, prisons, and halfway houses. And if we do so, we’ll find that we forget about filling our lives with the pursuit of wealth and status, since we have other interests and other rewards.
The third cause mentioned above was exposure to environmental toxins. This is impossible to avoid entirely, here and especially in the war zone. But we can eat moderately and well, cutting out processed and empty calories and choosing simple, naturally produced ingredients. We can eliminate unhealthy chemicals in our home, like dry cleaning fluid, fabric protector, highly scented detergents, and all the other miracle products that are advertised as improving our lives but are actually harming us.
Turn off screens
Maybe the hardest change of all for some people is to get off screens. Not entirely, of course. (I am aware that I’m writing this on a screen and you’re reading this on a screen.) But we can limit the amount of time we spend looking to bodiless people and distant gossip to amuse us and instead focus on the real work and physical people around us. Read a book. Play a board game. Build something. Practice music. Go for a long walk. Rake your neighbor’s leaves. Write a letter on paper to surprise someone (both the recipient and the postal worker!).
Live daily life
Finally, let’s acknowledge that yes, there are looming disasters awaiting us. Most days our young woman faces the possibility of violent death; we in wealthy countries face the certainty of climate change, resource depletion, and the unrest that will inevitably result. Anxiety is not an unreasonable response, so long as it doesn’t debilitate us. Therapy can help. Contributing to a better world and a better future, in the ways that we can, may also reduce our sense of panic. But it’s dangerous to spend too much time and energy on the future, whether it's the next few minutes or the next few centuries. The future is fluid and unknowable. Here and now is where our lives are lived, where the woman in the war zone is sharing some bread with her coworkers and where I am sweeping the floor while I cook dinner.
Solomon was known for his wisdom, but if you read carefully through the book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament, you can see that despite his wisdom he shared the modern struggle with anxiety and despair. He says, “So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. What do people get for all the toil and anxious striving with which they labor under the sun? All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest. This too is meaningless” (Ecclesiastes 2:17, 22 and 23).
Solomon finds that it is not wisdom or success that brings him peace, but the simple blessing of daily tasks: “A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God” (2:24, 3:12 and 13). And this is the gift of peace, even among the bombs.