Anxiety is linked to the insecurity gripping a divided, unequal and conformist United States of America.
I have anxiety. Generalized Anxiety Disorder, officially. It was never really acknowledged or diagnosed until it swelled up into a wave of depression during my second year of college. Looking back now, I can trace the breadcrumbs marking its trail: the odium for sleepaway camp, the times spent fighting off nausea in the locker room before swim meets.
At most times, it flares up unannounced, unwelcomed. It doesn’t always make sense. I’m white, in my 20s, grew up in the same house my parents still live in and have graduated college debt-free. I’ve got a good family with four living grandparents, a brother, cousins and good friends.
To the objective observer it would seem I’ve got it all. And I kind of do. Maybe I have a genetic predisposition for anxiety and depression; but maybe it’s environmental. But maybe there’s something more going on. Maybe America has something to do with it.
For me, anxiety is all about control. My anxiety spikes when outcomes are uncertain or I feel threatened or invalidated. I live in a country where control is systematically hard to come by. America is a nation without universal health care or affordable post-secondary education; a country in which the disparity of wealth between rich and poor has hit an all-time high; a nation run by corporations that ship our jobs overseas; a society filled with intolerance, violence and discrimination—and that’s just a glimpse of our problems.
America doesn’t offer security—emotional, physical or fiscal—to its people. And it’s making us anxious.
A study conducted to look at Britain’s “me culture” connected high levels of depression and anxiety to the country’s individualistic, capitalistic culture. The lead author of the study, Joan Chiao, states: “People from highly individualistic cultures like the United States and Western Europe are more likely to value uniqueness over harmony, expression over agreement, and to define themselves as unique or different from the group.”
In individualistic societies like ours, the prioritization of individual success takes away time and value from community building. When success means being better than the other, the idea of a society with shared resources is hard to nurture. While a few among us might gain individually from a capitalistic, individualistic model, we lose collectively. The larger share of society’s resources we claim for ourselves, the smaller share we deal to someone else.
This ever-present, ever-pressing need to secure enough resources to survive is what makes America a breeding ground for anxiety.
We like to believe we get to be ourselves in America. But what the American “melting pot” really serves to do is to melt away our individual differences and serve us up, neatly poured into duplicate molds.
To be successful as an individual, we have to conform. Even from childhood, we need to check off all the right boxes to secure our future. The ideal set-up: fiscally secure; English-speaking home; pre-kindergarten education; good primary schooling; participation in a range of extracurricular activities; development of unique/marketable skills; good grades; AP classes, high SAT scores; no felony/misdemeanor violations; admittance to a well-regarded university; high GPA; summer internships at notable organizations; professional appearance; interpersonal skills—you could get more specific and more extensive, but the point is clear. Success in America is formulaic and there is no level playing field. Socioeconomic factors like race, sex and income level play an influential role. Any difference, any deviation means an added challenge to overcome.
White, Wealthy Men
The proof of endemic American inequality can be seen in the country’s legislation. Since 1776, the law of the land has protected the interests of wealthy white men. Women and minorities are still fighting for legislation that reflects and serves their values and needs. The wealthy white men have been guarding their turf and fighting back. This is only to be expected. As Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in Letter From a Birmingham Jail: “It is a historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.”
Today, the triumph of Ronald Reagan’s get rich ideology has resulted in a Citizen’s United court ruling unleashing unlimited money into election campaigns. Exemptions from federal environmental standards for drilling companies and the Trans-Pacific Partnership are only two of the too many decisions and deals that cater to corporate interests that monopolize wealth.
The American dream is still rigged in favor of the white, wealthy men who set it up.
Yes, our society has evolved culturally and legislatively since its inception, but we are still governed by a group who looks suspiciously demographically similar to the one that founded this country.
Our current congressional body is 80% white, 80% male and 92% Christian. For a body of representatives, Congress isn’t very representative at all. Whites make up only 63% of the total US population. That’s nearly a 20% deviation from the racial representation in Congress. The number of women in congressional office doesn’t come close to covering the 50.8% majority that actually exists in the US, nor does the number of Christian congressmen paint an accurate picture of the religious breakdown of Americans. Not only are there few non-Christian congressmen, but there is almost no representation of the 22.8% of Americans who consider themselves religiously unaffiliated.
If you’re non-male, non-white or non-Christian, how can you expect to feel secure with a majority white, majority male and majority Christian representative body? If you’re white, male and Christian, why share? Why risk giving up your security?
Both situations are anxiety-inducing, which suggests that perhaps I’m not the only one in America affected. In fact, evidence is everywhere that our country is beset by anxiety and depression—from an individual to a national level.
Clayton R. Cook broke down common characteristics of so-called emotional disorders like depression and anxiety into: all-or-none thinking; discounting the positive; Negative filter; overgeneralization; labeling; fortune telling; emotional reasoning; should and must statements; personalization; and unfair comparisons.
Evidence of these symptoms runs rampant in our politicians. For example, Cook characterizes all-or-none thinking as one which views only extremes without accepting a middle ground. Remember the time Republicans shut down the government to shut out Obamacare?
That is textbook all-or-none thinking.
What about discounting the positive? Barack Obama’s use of the n-word in an interview with WTF with Marc Maron drew a variety of critical responses and disproportionate attention to the social acceptability of his word choice rather than the reason he dropped the slur.
Fortune-telling or fear-mongering is also big. What else explains the Republican hysteria that any sort of negotiation with Iran would lead directly to Iranian nuclear development? The Republicans have no evidence, and they’ve been wrong (big time) before. Their open letter directed to Iranian leaders is a classic example.
To return to Cook’s criteria, our representatives are using such partisan polemic that compromise is impossible. Tensions run high in Washington DC and throughout much of the United States. The fraught atmosphere of the Republican primary and the popularity of Donald Trump reveal how divided the country has become. With so many self-important, competing agendas, it’s no wonder we don’t have universal health care or affordable post-secondary education. On one side, we have people anxious about defending their resources, and on the other, we have people anxious about trying to gain them.
Steps in the Right Direction
When I first started to tell people about my experience with anxiety and depression, it was hard and weird. A lot of people didn’t understand. They wanted to know what “happened” to me, and I was embarrassed not to have what they’d recognize as a real reason. It was frustrating.
But then there were the people who did understand—who’d experienced the same thing or were at least sympathetic. They validated the way I was feeling, equipped me with tools to manage and made me feel secure no matter the circumstances.
I think if America can take that that step, talk honestly about its weaknesses, insecurities and struggles, then perhaps we can start building communities that are attentive and responsive to the needs of the whole and not just one part.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.