Why Anxiety Gnaws

Central problem of clinical psychology is a signature of life.

Posted Mar 11, 2014

For sentient beings, life means approaching pleasure and avoiding pain. Pain may be physical or psychological. If psychological, it is perceived as unease or anxiety. Our vulnerability to anxiety is the biggest threat to our well-being. Escaping from anxiety is a powerful motivator. Why do we suffer so much from anxiety?

The master emotion

If humans have a master emotion, it is probably anxiety. We are anxious about whether people like us, anxious about our physical appearance, anxious about diet, anxious about world peace, anxious about sexuality, anxious about the weather, anxious about travel, anxious about insects, anxious about germs, anxious about despots, anxious about surveillance, anxious about vicious dogs, anxious about our golf handicap, anxious about investments, anxious about Thanksgiving, anxious about public speaking, anxious about heights, anxious about drowning, and so on.

Such anxieties are a natural aspect of being alive and being designed by natural selection to remain that way as long as possible. Yet, our regular anxiety levels are unnaturally elevated. It is as though modern conditions are flipping far too many on buttons and and far too few off buttons.

This is not an original idea of course, and despite having an unprecedented quality of life, people in developed countries are succumbing to all manner of anxiety-related disorders, including heart disease that remains the leading cause of death, depression, insomnia, and drug addictions.

Modern causes of anxiety

So what are the buttons that get flipped to turn on anxiety? What are the off buttons that are ignored.

Psychologists have identified a long list of modern experiences that evoke generalized anxiety. In this list, I add a few others. 

  • We wake to an unpleasant alarm as though in a war.
  • The news is a long catalog of disturbing events.
  • We work to an unnatural schedule such as an eight-hour day that ignores fatigue and boredom.
  • We drive to work at the same time as everyone else creating unnecessary congestion, anxiety, and frustration
  • We watch too much television that is believed to act as a depressant.
  • We avoid talking to “strangers” even if we see them every day.
  • Constant loud noise, smog, and other industrial stressors.
  • Emphasis on competition for academic success, sports trophies, salaries, etc
  • We move frequently, losing social supports.
  • We prefer to live in cities rather than in the countryside or small towns.
  • We are hassled by marketers in our spare time.
  • Rising narcissism is now recognized as a factor in modern depression and social media do not help.

Such lists may be endless in principle but even this short list includes some of the key stressors of modern life that are predictive of depression and other anxiety disorders. Another, equally important list involves off buttons. 

Off buttons for anxiety

Just as psychologists are well aware of many everyday experiences that promote anxiety, we are also aware that modern lifestyles omit many of the off buttons for anxiety enjoyed by people in more laidback communities. 

  • Physical activity increases not just fitness and health but psychological well-being.
  • Relaxation time regularly scheduled.
  • Distracting hobbies and activities.
  • Playing games, including electronic games.
  • Relaxation training, meditation, yoga, and other techniques that lower blood pressure, including prayer and religious ceremonies.
  • Aimless conversation with friends and acquaintances.
  • Having a large social network and feeling that we belong in the community
  • Embracing and kissing intimate companions
  • Caring for children and others.
  • Having dogs and other pets.
  • Artistic pursuits such as playing music, painting, and creative writing.
  • Slow-paced activities such as fishing, or shopping.
  • Appreciation of natural beauty.
  • Time out from news and social media.

One obvious omission from the second list is anti-anxiety drugs. These reduce anxiety in the short term but may have different long term effects as the brain gets habituated to them.

The bad news is that anxiety is not going away. The good news is that we have plenty of information about why modern life is so anxious and what we can do behaviorally to relieve anxiety.