Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

High on Anxiety—Revisited

Originally posted on March 2, 2011

Gary Schwartz wrote a column in the February 14 Newsweek titled  High on Anxiety. This is a most interesting problem that deserves much deeper investigation. What people do may not correlate with what is wise to do. Indeed, many subjects in psychological researchers may be the kinds of students whose idea of fun is getting drunk in small groups and calling that a party.

The article is important in an era in which the idea of being ramped-up in a mild state of high-edge is correlated with ability in certain tasks. Remember, these psychology test subjects — i.e., college undergraduates who are far from typical in certain respects—are also part of a demographic that overuses stimulants, coffee and often drugs like Adderall (a mixed amphetamine) to counter their boredom in class and jump through the hoops posed by their instructors in writing papers, etc. This is also an age group that is favored by the military and again whose mission requires a capacity for high intensity alertness. In other words, a measure of anxiety and paranoia in various situations is adaptive for the task involved.

The article cites people who are trait angry, or trait fear—as if by calling it “trait” they imply that it’s natural, and thereby optimal, or healthy, or nothing to be done about it. On the other hand, what is most obviously missing from this one-page provocative article is the following: Many people are driven by fears that if they do not drive themselves something terrible will happen. They may well be unconscious of what that source fear is, but often it is obvious: You may make a mistake and be vulnerable to shame, and many if not most kids have been painfully shamed repeatedly by peers, siblings, parents, and teachers. It’s a very toxic stimulus: “Oooh, look at you. (In a singsong voice, taunting:) Yoooouuu made a mistaaake! Nyah nyah nyah.” There are variations: (Angrily:) “What did you do that for?” (Children have no comeback: The true answers, such as “I didn’t mean for it to turn out that way,” “I’m not that good at it yet,” or “I can’t access my reasons and justify myself—I don’t have a clue where to look for an explanation” seem to be unacceptable from the get-go.) There are also many other circumstances that can provoke a child to develop a character pattern of self-driving.

People become habituated to driving themselves, being stoked up, because a hyper-alert state feels defended, relatively immune to innuendo and reproach. It’s a high because it’s better than being brought low. All of this should be recognized as a second-level defensive system; it is definitely not as pleasant as living in a world where people are nice to each other, wouldn’t dream of attacking each other, tend towards being diplomatic, tactful, kind, gentle, and pleasant. In such a world, being mellow is much more pleasant than being on edge. However, this world seems as unavailable and unrealistic as “over the rainbow,” “never-never land.”

We project this baseline expectation even onto beings from other worlds! We portray such beings who populate sci-fi movies and television shows as being willing to be dominated by Nazi-like dictatorships, in spite of their species’ having reached a higher level of technological competence. Here’s an idea that seems not to have occurred to many sci-fi writers: Certain higher or more complex levels of technology will require a far kinder, more cooperative, more peace-making, conflict-resolution-oriented, forgiving, gentle, more conscious overall species. Humanity is getting close to this crisis now: To pull off more complex systems, we have to get along better politically. Those who think that being “strong” (in the aggressive, colonialistic 19th and 20th century understanding of the term) is the same as being effective will have difficulty understanding that idea.

So the conclusion of the psychiatrist in that article that some people want to feel anxious or they feel empty inside is possibly misleading. Perhaps we should examine the prevalence of what leads people to feel more or less empty or bored—that seems very relevant to a socio-cultural and spiritual question as to what such feelings are about. Might it be about having no widely shared cultural goals, demoralization, withdrawal from an addiction to distractions from mass media, a lack of knowing how to generate meaning and fun from “inside,” and other conditions that become obvious when we realize that the culture really has come to worship the false idol of commercialism and its illusory nature sometimes breaks through?

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