It is impossible to live without anxiety: while it becomes one of the contemporary epidemics, psychology seeks new approaches
Nicanor knows what fear is and knows it because she has experienced it many times. Lately, however, that fear (perhaps more undefined, but just as vivid) visits him much more often. She is a little embarrassed to admit it, but she confesses that long before going out for a drink with friends, she begins to feel an irrational anguish for what she will find there.
He doesn't understand it, but his main concern when partying is live musicians. Especially, the flute. When he listened to a flute at some banquet, party or social event, a mass of fear grabs his chest and does not let go. It turns it into a wink. Nicanor, we are pretty sure of this, he has an anxiety disorder, but he doesn't know it.
And it is not uncommon for him not to know, Nicanor lived in Greece in the last years of the 5th century BC and his problem, preserved in the 'Hippocratic Treaties', is the first documented case of an anxiety disorder that we have. Anxiety is not, as we can see, a newcomer to human life as we might believe. He has always been here and, as far as we know, he is not going anywhere. No, we cannot live without anxiety.
But what is anxiety?
Aaron White Weaver
According to the DSM, which is perhaps the reference psychiatric manual, I have not been entirely accurate in the preceding paragraphs. Anxiety and fear are things clinically different. Anxiety differs from fear in that while the latter is an emotional response linked to an imminent threat (real or perceived), the former is the anticipation of a threat that is not clearly drawn on the horizon. The nuance is important.
Doctors, psychologists and researchers in general are clear that anxiety is a normal emotion, something that is part of the "standard emotional team" of human beings. From an evolutionary point of view, it is a psychological mechanism that allows us to adapt to the environment and that encourages people to move away from dangerous places.
One of those things that keep us alive, come on. The poet, activist and scientific disseminator Beatriz Sevilla has one of the definitions of a more incisive outbreak of anxiety that I know, is "as if a tiger was chasing me, but without a tiger."
Intuitively, it is a good way to conceptualize it. Above all, because for most of our evolutionary history the tiger was there. The problem is, from time to time, it just wasn't there. In other words, sometimes these emotional mechanisms are no longer adaptive, fail and become what we know today as an anxiety disorder.
An anxious world
As we could see in the case of Nicanor, it is not something new. What's new is something else: the world around us and the fact that our biology and culture go a little slower than that world. Evolution has sculpted an emotional toolbox that gives us reasons to avoid circumstances that jeopardize our security, but what happens when those risks are dramatically reduced? That false positives are triggered.
It is not a way of speaking. According to the WHO, one in 10 people in the world suffer anxiety at the moment and, at least in countries where we have reliable data, it has become the most prevalent mental illness. Google searches up to 10 times more the term anxiety than depression. And, so that we can see that it is not just a third party problem, in recent years Spain has become the European country that consumes the most anxiolytics, the vast majority administered by friends and families (44% in the case of opiates and 62 % in sedatives).
Modern societies have become machines for producing outbreaks of anxiety. In large part, as Wilson and Luciano say, because "feeling good" has become a generic mental health guide. So much so that "human beings of the 21st century easily understand that feeling bad is abnormalOr, in other words, as the polls show, the vast majority of the population understands that "feeling bad" is incompatible with "believing yourself mentally healthy."
Once the idea that we need to be well in order to live well is installed (cultural) in people, the risk of a person becoming chronic in an anxiety disorder increases exponentially. Wilson and Luciano go further and point out that those kinds of ideas that are so popular in our society (and that may perhaps work in some transitory processes such as mourning) tend to "denature anxiety as a natural part of the world" and can become "the avoidance of that suffering as the sole objective of life". A "restrictive option that can be destructive".
Against experiential avoidance
"Animals are happy as long as they have health and enough food. Human beings, one thinks, should also be, but in the modern world they are not. At least, in the vast majority of cases. " With this reflection in 'The Conquest of Happiness', Bertrand Russell was not only criticizing the society of his time, but he was influencing precisely this idea.
When researchers and clinicians realized that traditional practice (that need to control emotions in order to live happily) was being counterproductive, they began to reflect on anxiety in everyday life and how that role could provide the keys to cope with this increasingly widespread epidemic.
There are many models and theories that have emerged to understand this process, but perhaps those known as "acceptance and commitment" are among the most successful (Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 1999). These models affect combating the psychological rigidity that makes us plunge into experiential avoidance and accept that discomfort and suffering (when they are not pathological) are things indisputably linked to life. It is about recognizing that you cannot live without anxiety, yes; but also in not turning that idea into a slab that prevents us from moving forward.
The need to find a contemporary way of good life
Because that perhaps is the key question of all this: how to build a cultural account of life in which we cannot escape pain, fear or uncertainty and still worth living? Contemporary clinical psychology focuses on changing the gaze and promoting acceptance, but also on being aware of and committing to personal values. It does not sound bad and it is bearing good fruit, but the truth is that it is still early to know if this approach works.
In the last 150 years, human beings have found themselves through modern science, but we have not been able to digest it well (culturally speaking). As Harari points out, "We allow ourselves to believe something in the laboratory and something else entirely in court or Parliament. […] After dedicating hundreds of scholarly pages to deconstructing self and free will, they perform impressive intellectual somersaults that miraculously they make it fall again in the 18th century. "And that is something that makes our teeth gnash. We need, psychologists say, to find new ways of living a good life: it is not something simple, that is one of the great tasks of synthetic philosophy, clinical psychology and political theory: in short, of everyday life.