Anxiety has become a fixture of modern day life, but nobody is alone in their suffering.
Anxiety is the most common mental health condition in Australia. Over 2 million Australian adults have an anxiety disorder, and about 6% of Australians will be diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) over their lifetimes. One in five people in the UK suffer high levels of anxiety at any one time and one in nine people worldwide will experience an anxiety disorder in a given year. The disorder is highly treatable, yet according to one analysis, only about a third of those suffering from it receive treatment.
Oftentimes, anxiety can be insidious and be such an operational baseline (especially for ambitious folks) that we don’t even know how much we need to heal. It’s just what we have always known. It’s like the classic story of the fish asking another fish “how’s the water?”, only for the other fish to respond, “what is water?”
How much of it is due to modern living?
While anxiety is undeniably an ancient emotion, the causes of it today have multiplied and complexified. Within a largely capitalist system, many of today’s employees are disengaged from their jobs, with few really seeing themselves in the work they’re creating. Students are debt-ridden and many recent graduates are unemployed and cope with social isolation.
Indeed, life in the modern world is unlike anything our ‘hardware’ evolved for. Modern living seems to operate on a time-lapse, so that most of us feel more like human doings than human beings, speeding from one obligation to the next. The vast majority of us don’t hunt for our food or regularly encounter life-threatening obstacles, so the result is that we’ve abstracted the threats up to the level of thought. We find ourselves constantly planning and thinking about the future. We have a plethora of choices, whether it be what to wear in the morning, what to buy at the supermarket, or more life-defining choices like what career to pursue. All these choices can sometimes be paralysing and further contribute to the anxiety of modern living.
Moreover, social media has simultaneously connected us and isolated us, substituting in-face connection for a digital, MSG-version of a sense of connection and meaning. We can chat with others across the globe but at the same time, we find ourselves comparing our lives (with the glory and sorrow and everything in between) to the best moments that other people portray in their feed, leading to entirely new sources of anxiety like a fear of missing out.
It is not all doom and gloom, however.
Perhaps one of the most distressing aspects of mental illness is feeling alone in it. One thing social media, and more broadly, the internet, has made clear is that anxiety sufferers are not alone. With hashtags on Twitter such as #thisiswhatanxietyfeelslike and Reddit channels like r/socialanxiety and r/anxiety, there’s a distributed community of sufferers around the globe in solidarity. The psychologist Carl Jung once said that a genuine moral effort can be an effective substitute for psychotherapy, and many are doing just that, blogging, building online communities, and turning to the internet, in general, to solve their problems and feel validated and not alone in their feelings.
“99% of things you worry about never happen
With anxiety, you believe 99% of things you worry about will happen
With online mental health campaigns, mental illnesses like anxiety and panic disorders are being destigmatised and sufferers are beginning to realise that many other people are going through the same or very similar experiences.
“If you’re a human being living in 2019, and you’re not anxious, there’s something wrong with you #ThisIsWhatAnxietyFeelsLike”
The worldwide stage opened up through the internet has allowed even prominent figures and famous people to be vocal about their battles with anxiety. Lady Gaga has suffered from anxiety for her whole life, creating a foundation called Born This Way to help her fans cope with their mental health challenges. The actress Emma Stone has been publically open about her frequent panic attacks, and the news anchor Dan Harris suffered a panic attack on live air, leading him to write a bestselling book about his discovery of meditation and how it has helped him in his battle with anxiety.
Anxiety is a complex disorder, with biological, genetic, psychosocial, and environmental factors, but it is clear that it may be something of a modern epidemic. Thanks to the internet though, perhaps things aren’t getting worse but our information is getting better. It has shown us just how connected we are in our suffering and all too human the disorder really is.