Our New Age of Anxiety

According to recently released CDC survey data, anxiety levels in the US are, on average, three times higher than they were a year ago. Why this surge? “Well, that’s obvious,” you may be thinking. “In a word: Covid.” The pandemic has certainly played a significant role in increasing our anxiety. Yet it goes much deeper. 

Initially Sigmund Freud, and later the existential psychologist Rollo May, referred to anxiety as an emotion without an object. In fact, there can be many objects in our environment contributing to our anxiety. We feel anxiety when there is a person, situation or event in our environment obstructs our goals or values and we are unsure what to do about it. 

Anxiety is a normal response to the pandemic. As an emotion, anxiety is considered innate and necessary for survival. It’s a defense mechanism: an emotion that has been biologically wired into our physiological system to help us develop and sustain hyper-vigilance in case we encounter adversity, like a tense, coiled spring perpetually preparing for action. For this reason, anxiety increases our stress and, if we experience it repeatedly over time, reduces our immune system functioning.  

When does a threat in our environment induce a high level of anxiety? When we feel that it threatens our very existence. We perceive our existence to be threatened when any one of the following five conditions are satisfied. 

First, we feel unable to cope with the threat. We feel it exceeds our available resources to manage it. 

The second condition is intertwined with the first: we doubt our adequacy as a human being because we are unable to effectively cope with the threat. 

Alternatively, we may feel inadequate due to the negative beliefs about ourselves we inherited from our parents, teachers, coaches or other adults who we felt compelled to follow because they were more powerful than us when we were growing up. Why did we inherit these negative beliefs?  

Because our parents or caretakers were our world. To believe they were wrong in their opinion about us would be akin to believing our entire world was wrong, which would sweep the carpet out from under us and would be too much to fathom. It is for this reason that the acceptance that our parents are imperfect, fallible human beings, just like ourselves, is the hallmark of truly growing up. 

The third condition is that we feel the threat in our environment affects our very identity as a human being. Many of us, for example, are so psychologically wedded to our work that it has become an integral part of who we are. If you are one of these people, you will perceive the slightest threat to your work as a threat to your identity which, hence, will cause you anxiety. 

On numerous levels, we feel our personal identity, so tied to the social fabric of our society, is at risk during this pandemic. As the Berkeley psychologist Richard Lazarus and his wife Bernice state, “[Anxiety-provoking] situations … have in common the danger of something harmful waiting to happen, which could well undermine or demolish our sense of who and what we are in the world as well as the very meaning of our lives.”  

The fourth condition is that we perceive a person, situation or event in our environment to be a threat to a life goal or value we associate with meaning in our life. If you spent a good part of your childhood observing your parents at each other’s throats—or too far from each other, in different houses (as in my case), to even see each other’s throats—and believe that a part of your life’s purpose is to maintain a healthy marriage in which your children grow up in an intact family, comments casually shared by your spouse that suggest they are unhappy may induce great anxiety.  

As your values are so integral to and inextricable from your personal identity, the fourth condition overlaps somewhat with the third. In the example I’ve used here, your personal identity may hinge on being a healthily and sustainably married person. Hence, any threats to that identity will stimulate anxiety. 

The fifth condition that will cause you to feel your existence is being threatened is if you perceive a person, situation or event in your environment to be a threat to life itself. As the Lazarus’s declare, “The inevitability of death, which results in the end of our physical and psychological existence, is the ultimate basis of anxiety”  

Stemming from the above five conditions, the Lazarus’s identify anxiety as an “existential” emotion. What this means is that when you perceive a person, situation or event in your environment to be a threat, you construe the threat they pose to be not merely to a transitory object, such as your car or job, or even a relationship. Rather, the person, situation or event presents a threat to your very existence.  

These five conditions are a lot to think about. Yet as human beings we are “cognitive misers” and don’t like to think too much. For this reason, most of us focus instead on the immediate actions we can take to reduce a threat rather than on the existential meaning of the threat itself, which—rooted in these five conditions—is what is truly provoking our anxiety.  

During this pandemic, these actions may be to wear a mask, to wash our hands and to maintain six feet of physical distance from others. Yet, on a deeper existential level, we still do not feel safe because we know the threat is more than just physical—it’s also social, psychological, economic, and political.  

While it’s admittedly a lot to consider, understanding the causes of our anxiety on a deeper level will reduce the power these unseen objects have over us and, consequently, our anxiety. A lot of thinking, yes; yet in the complex world we now occupy, our future well-being depends on it. 

Do you find anxiety to be increasing in our society? Why? What can you do about it? Please share in the comments.