Common mental disorders are increasing worldwide according to the World Health Organisation. Between 1990 and 2013, the number of people suffering from depression and/or anxiety increased by nearly 50%, from 416 million to 615 million. Close to 10% of the world’s population is affected and mental disorders account for 30% of global non-fatal diseases.
Any sort of world conflict adds to the number of anxious people: WHO estimates that during emergencies as many as 1 in 5 people are affected by depression and anxiety. David Brooks, writing in The New York Times, describes the trend as an “epidemic of worry”, and wonders if his own country’s anxiety levels are increasing due to an election that has focussed on fears and left many worrying about the state of world affairs. Brooks writes:
Educated-class anxiety can often be characterized as a feeling overabundant of options without a core of convicting purpose. It’s worth noting that rich countries are more anxious than poorer ones. According to the World Health Organization, 18.2 percent of Americans report chronic anxiety while only 3.3 percent of Nigerians do.
Today, when you hear affluent people express worry, it’s usually related to the fear of missing out, and the dizziness of freedom. The affluent often feel besieged by busyness and plagued by a daily excess of choices. At the same time, there is a pervasive cosmic unease, the anxiety that they don’t quite understand the meaning of life, or have not surrendered to some all-encompassing commitment that would bring coherence and peace.
Many affluent people use money to buy privacy, and so cut themselves off from both the deep relationships that could give them purpose and the neighbourly support systems that could hold them up if things go south.
This election has also presented members of the educated class with an awful possibility: that their pleasant social strata may rest on unstable molten layers of anger, bigotry and instability.
…Among the less educated, anxiety flows from and inflames a growing sense that the structures of society are built for the exploitation of people like themselves. Everything is rigged; the rulers are malevolent and corrupt.
With a Western culture which increasingly focuses on individual needs (especially with incessant advertising to fuel them), and often lacks any conviction of a deeper natural law or purpose, it is worth pondering why anxiety levels are also much higher in the richer countries than the poorer ones. Is a lack of purpose or a lack of surrender in richer countries at the root of increasing anxiety? We have so many more choices to somehow craft the perfect lifestyle, so much busyness to go along with it, and so much more chance of messing up a decision and find we are not living the best life we could have. Yet, many are also led to increasingly wonder what it’s all for and where any certain moral or ethical direction can be found. Where does a more peaceful way of life lie? At least in relation to worry about external circumstances such as world politics, Brooks argues:
The answer to worry is the same as the answer to fear: direct action. If the next president starts enacting a slew of actual policies, then at least we can argue about concrete plans, rather than vague apocalyptic moods.
Furthermore, action takes us out of ourselves. Worry, like drama, is all about the self. As O’Gorman puts it, the worrier is the opposite of a lighthouse: “He doesn’t give out energy for the benefit of others. He absorbs energy at others’ cost.”
If you’re worrying, you’re spiralling into your own narcissistic pool. But concrete plans and actions thrust us into the daily fact of other people’s lives.
Writing in the The Atlantic earlier this year Robinson Meyer discusses the approach of clinical psychologist Renee Lertzman who also believes in action to assuage worry about external circumstances:
It’s important to see action itself as valuable and worthwhile, no matter how limited the outcome.
“When I read accounts of people who are really engaged, who have really stepped up and are doing amazing things, that’s the thread that seems to run through it,” Lertzman told me. They see their own actions as inherently worthwhile, even if they’re aware of the limits of their own actions.
“You’re not denying the pain of recognizing the limits of what we can do. But you’re also not minimizing, not devaluing, the importance of what we can do,” she said. To this end, she encouraged people not to compare themselves to their heroes or to people who seem especially effective, but to focus on how much action they themselves can take.
She recalled the Serenity Prayer’s plea to have “courage to change the things I can.”
These commentators seem to argue that action takes us ‘out of ourselves’, perhaps similiar to the age-old adage that you must ‘lose yourself to find yourself’. They also acknowledge that a deeper purpose is helpful in combatting anxiety. Others argue that it’s also important to recognise that anxiety about an existential threat or outcome is at times completely normal. The acceptance that sometimes living with anxieties is a normal part of life can be a huge relief. The human mind often tries to identify threats and plan for them, or it considers past losses or mistakes and considers what it could have done differently. For some, diet, chemical imbalances and lifestyle play a part and can be addressed to help to relieve excess anxiety.
While it can be easier said than done, it makes sense that attempting to follow a positive, outwards looking routine focussed on a hopeful struggle to make yourself and the world better would help lessen excessive worry and avoid despair about circumstances beyond our control. Whether you fail is irrelevant – you have lived an honourable, purposeful life in the attempt.