In the Jan/Feb 20014 edition of Atlantic, an article by journalist Scott Stossel told about his life-long debilitating anxiety, and discussed the nature of anxiety. Look at this excerpt:
Is pathological anxiety a medical illness, as Hippocrates and Aristotle and many modern psychopharmacologists would have it? Or is it a philosophical problem, as Plato and Spinoza and the cognitive-behavioral therapists would have it? Is it a psychological problem, a product of childhood trauma and sexual inhibition, as Freud and his acolytes once had it? Or is it a spiritual condition, as Soren Kierkegaard and his existential descendants claimed? Or, finally, is it – as W.H. Auden and David Riesman and Erich Fromm and Albert Camus and scores of modern commentators have declared – a cultural condition, a function of the times and the structure of the society we live in?
You might think Stossel has asked all the questions that can be asked here, but there is one he missed – is anxiety natural?
How, you may want to ask, can something pathological be natural?
Well, there are many examples of it. The favorite is sickle-cell anemia. Many people with a sub-Saharan genetic origin carry a gene that produces sickle-shaped red blood cells. If you have two copies of this gene, you’re in trouble, but if you have only one, which is more common, you have significant immunity to malaria.
Does anxiety have a purpose too?
In her book The Highly Sensitive Person, psychologist Elaine Aron has suggested that most HSPs (highly sensitive persons) are probably natural, that they exist because in humanity’s remote past sensitivity was a survival trait. All wild animals have acute senses.
Well, in today’s world highly sensitive people often suffer from anxiety, one reason Dr Aron wrote her book.
Put wild animals in a tight confining cage and they quickly develop anxiety.
I think it’s perfectly natural that those of us who have retained more of the ancient hunter-gathering genes should suffer anxiety in the middle of this 7 billion strong herd they call civilization. Society, at least as I have experienced it, is a gigantic cage.
But Mother Nature retains old out-of-use genes in case things change. Should some plague wipe out most of humanity, or we just H-bomb ourselves back to 1% of the population we have now, or, most improbable of all I suppose, society should learn to include sensitive people without abusing them, we might need shy, quiet, sensitive people again.
So you and your anxiety may be here because Mother Nature is hedging her bets.
To answer one of Stossel’s questions another way, yes, anxiety is a cultural condition. Shy sensitive people suffer anxiety because they’re living in a culture that doesn’t fit them. Put them in the middle of a wilderness forest, or a large quiet library, and most shy people don’t suffer anxiety.
It we’re going to insist on calling anxiety a disease, then it’s a disease of civilization.
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PS – If you’re interested, here is a link to Scott Stossel’s informative and entertaining article: