How is it possible to be alive on planet Earth and not experience anxiety? This is a question I have pondered over and again because it seems that the most common human condition of the modern age is… anxiety.
I have considered all of the people I associate with, many of whom are technically doing fairly well in life, and without obvious emotional issues – and they all experience anxiety to one degree or another. I experience anxiety on a daily basis, though someone recently expressed great surprise when I said as much: “what… you? I didn’t have you pegged as a person who suffers from anxiety!”. Their choice of the word ‘suffers’ interested me, but also irritated me! Is there an assumption that people who appear to be generally strong and resilient are immune to anxiety… that it is the exclusive domain of those who are openly struggling, and for obvious reasons? That the strong and resilient somehow have it easier; that they don’t have the right to experience anxiety?
Putting aside those people who have a clinical condition, I believe that for the rest of us anxiety is relative. A teenager will worry about different issues than those faced by an elderly person. A young mother will have certain pressures to face that will differ from those experienced by a middle-aged business woman. We are all affected, influenced and programmed by our childhood. Like many others, my early to teen years were pretty dysfunctional, and although I don’t drag it around with me like a ball and chain, it can’t have failed to have left its mark. On top of this (and maybe at least partially because of my past) I put myself through some ridiculous crap over the years, leaving myself with memories I’d prefer to forget, and a residue of underlying unease. And I don’t believe that I am any different to the billions of other human beings in the world who are living, loving and functioning… whilst being completely resigned to the inevitable anxiety that is a part of everyday life on planet Earth!
So, let’s take a look at some of the causes of anxiety in the western world:
(as opposed to war-torn zones and/or repressive regimes in which people are surviving under obviously stressful conditions)
1) Inherited anxiety:
We were born into a family that habitually struggles, or focuses more on lack and hardship than on hope for the future. Happiness isn’t an automatic process; some poor young souls are never allowed, or taught, to be happy… and a habitually unhappy mind is an anxious mind.
2) Natural Sensitivity:
We are exceptionally sensitive to the world around us. I remember, as a child, crying over so many things, including the other kids digging ants out of the cracks in the paving stones with lollipop sticks, and then stamping on them; Disney films (especially the animals in the forest crying when they thought that Snow White had died, and when Bambi’s mother was killed!); any film in which an animal suffered, was lost or died (including the 10 Commandments, in which horses were drowned when Moses held his staff aloft, and God parted the Red Sea!); public disasters in which people died (I was devastated at the age of 10 when Robert Kennedy was shot, even though I didn’t really know who he was. The images of him with his family and the public outpouring of grief hit me like a punch to the heart… I just knew that something really bad had happened. My 10-year-old friends didn’t care a jot and thought I was crazy!); racial prejudice and vivisection (this was when I was a teenager). I didn’t associate with anyone who appeared to be affected in the same way that I was, and so I learned to keep it to myself, grieving in private.
3) Low self-worth:
We have a strong sense of low self-worth that probably has its roots in our childhood. We don’t believe that we are good enough, smart enough, attractive enough or interesting enough. This leads us into experiences that only serve to confirm our unworthiness… which in turn attracts criticism from onlookers who can’t understand why we are doing what we are doing… which in turn leads us to shut down and defend ourselves, believing that the rest of the world has it all sorted out.
We don’t have the will to work hard for a dream, immobilised by inertia; the people around us are scraping by, always complaining about life’s injustices and restrictions, always willing to rain on someone else’s parade. We either don’t know how to get out from underneath the deadweight or we are afraid to… scared of being ‘different’. We tell ourselves that we are depressed – and we are, but not in the accepted sense; we are DEEP-pressed, pushed down into the swamp of hopelessness, and what we probably need is inspiration, hope, and something to aspire too – not necessarily anti-depressants.
5) Social awkwardness:
We feel awkward and inept, socially speaking, and so avoid too much contact with the outside world, living within the same old bubble, following the same old routine.
We are hypersensitive to criticism and confrontation, taking everything personally. I used to know a lovely lady who was consistently having ‘issues’ with other people, and I would listen to her tales, responding with indignation and sympathy… until I saw her in action! There was a local public event that we both attended, and at one point she was engaged in conversation with a woman she often complained about, but whom I had never met. Some time later the woman was chatting with me, with my friend hovering in the background doing her best to listen in – and when I moved on, she grabbed my arm, hissing, “do you see what I mean about her? She’s a real piece of work, isn’t she?”. I had to say that no, I hadn’t picked up that vibe at all, and I began to wonder about all of the other ‘unreasonable’ individuals my friend seemed to encounter… and whether or not she was maybe taking some things a little too much to heart.
If we keep even half an eye on world events we are aware that every second of every day, somewhere on the planet, someone is inflicting something horrendous upon another human being or animal… and that we ourselves are largely helpless to do anything about it. We are also aware that random bad luck appears to suddenly and unexpectedly descend upon completely innocent individuals, and we cannot help but identify with them. I defy anyone to be able to live an anxiety-free life whilst in possession of a conscience and empathy and not living in an airtight bubble!
8) Survival mentality:
We have become programmed to survive life, rather than embrace and develop it. There could be many reasons for this, some of which will be thriving within the depths of our unconscious mind. We view everything as a potential threat to ourselves or our loved ones, and we are on constant guard-duty, batoning down the same hatches, again and again.
9) Fear of loss:
If we allow ourselves to love someone, they could leave us or die. We might crave being part of a loving relationship, but the moment that we are the anxiety kicks in. They might cheat on us or leave us; we aren’t good enough to keep them; we need more reassurance than they are able or willing to supply, and this leaves us feeling raw, insecure and stuck in a loop.
10) Fear of change:
No matter how uncomfortable the known and familiar is, it can feel a million times better than the ‘unknown’. However, this leaves us stuck between two stools, metaphorically speaking. The known is hurting us and holding us prisoner, whilst the unknown looms like a deep, dark ocean we really don’t want to have to navigate… and so we remain trapped, with a misery-inducing cell-mate called anxiety breathing down our neck.
11) Death (our own and other people’s):
We are all anxious about death, even those who claim to have no fear of it. It is the one thing we cannot possibly avoid, an unknown quantity we know for sure we will have to face up to one day, and probably several times throughout a lifetime. If it isn’t a fear of the act of dying itself, it is a fear of loss and abandonment, of wasted time, of too little time… of having lived an unfulfilled life. Can you imagine how different the world would be if we had no fear of death? Terrorism and intimidation would lose its power, as would illness and disease. We’d be braver, more adventurous… and so much happier. Of course, we are never actually going to lose our fear of death, but I am just saying – imagine how life would change if we did! I actively encourage others, wherever appropriate, to explore what they believe to be true about death, how it ties in with life, and what, if anything, they believe they are likely to experience beyond this physical world. Floating around in the sky, looking down on my still-living relatives, doesn’t cut any ice with me… I’d rather have oblivion!
There is something else I’d like to add, on the subject of anxiety… something that may very well make me unpopular! Anxiety is sometimes hijacked by the lazy, inept and self-entitled, as a ‘reason’ for their unwillingness to accept personal responsibility and get off their backside. It is also sometimes presented, in a conspiratorial tone, as a condition that is unique to the ‘sufferer’… and upon their confession, we are all supposed to throw up our hands in shock and pour pity upon them… as if no-one we know has ever been crushed by the weight of anxiety! I understand that some celebs feel that, by revealing the fact that they are as human as the rest of us, they are helping their followers to recognise that anxiety is not restricted to mere mortals. And in many cases they are helping.
However, anxiety now appears to have gained celebrity status all in its own right, which cannot possibly be a good thing – and the hijackers are only serving to turn people off to the subject, tired of hearing about it at every turn. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all brand of anxiety, and at different times we will be affected by different things… which need to be explored and understood.
I myself am anxious about some things that are always the same, and other things that come and go. I experience anxiety through my work and dealings with certain customers; I experience anxiety about my family, relationship and pets; I experience anxiety about my hopes and dreams, my finances, health and fitness, and how other people respond to me. I definitely regularly experience a great deal of anxiety where the world is concerned, and not even just anxiety; grief, fear, and rage are familiar companions! I don’t really want to switch off from the world, living in a bubble, pretending that everything is hunky-dory, but I do have to make a conscious effort to prevent it from taking over, every now and then.
Oh… and I really worry about Formula 1: after every Grand Prix I am drained and exhausted, as if I have driven the race myself! I am anxious not just about the results and the points, but the drivers and the teams, the highs and the lows, the failures and the victories. I worry for Claire Williams and hope to God that the team’s drivers aren’t throwing their careers away. I worry that Carlos Sainz may be in a precarious position if McLaren don’t have a consistently better car this year; I worry that Esteban Ocon won’t be offered a seat with a team worthy of his skills next year, if Valtteri Bottas proves to be someone Mercedes really want to keep for 2020 (and I also worry that he won’t be, because what would happen to him then… where could he possibly go, that wouldn’t be a major step backward? Sigh).
The fact is, life on Earth is an amazing, wonderful and breathtaking experience, not to mention miraculous; it is also consistently anxiety-inducing for every last one of us, at different times, for different reasons, and to one degree or another.
Some people have stronger pain-barriers than others and can appear to be functioning in a ‘normal’ way, even when they have their own internal and external struggles going on. I believe that it is absolutely non-productive, destructive even, to fail to recognise that anxiety is a natural human condition, with many different components… and that it is actually okay to be anxious: life isn’t wrong or bad if we don’t feel continuously emotionally safe and reassured. Modern society has forcefully been selling us all (especially the younger generation) a myth: that everyone around us is doing great in life, coping beautifully, and with nothing much at all to be anxious about – apart from us and our tribe. Which both you and I know is absolutely not true!