Our knowledge of this extremely common mental health problem is increasing, but we’re not there yet.
It’s a hard one for many people to get their heads around. Why on earth would you be sitting down, in a cafe, a public space or be on a date when you suddenly have an overwhelming feeling that you’re going to be sick or that something terrible will happen?
Anxiety diagnoses are on the increase, according to most government statistics around the world. Anxiety is a bizarre mental illness, it affects people in completely different ways. Some people will feel dizzy and sick, some will have their hearts race with blood pressure out of control and some will barely be able to keep still. That still doesn’t even begin to cover the whole spectrum.
There’s a part of me which thinks that, to be honest, this has been bound to happen for years.
Humans are natural worriers. We have evolved to have very high intelligence, we have created civilised society, social norms and many of these go against what we are biologically programmed to do. Marriage dictates that you must only sleep with one person for the rest of your life, yet men in particular are biologically programmed not to do that. This comes from times when we were still cavemen roaming on wasteland, we had to have as much sex as possible to make sure that our genes would pass on, this simply isn’t the case any more.
As these social norms have become more complex and more unusual (think of all the etiquette at a formal dinner table, for instance), it was always going to be the case that humans would develop some kind of social anxieties. On it’s base level: ‘What if I’m not eating with the correct fork?’, at it’s most extreme: ‘I might be sick, it would be such a faux-pas if I were to vomit in front of someone so important.’
Previous generations, before the millennials, had easy and quick fixes for this. Smoke! Drink! It’s not socially unacceptable to do so! There were no health implications, you could do with it what you please. It’s no wonder that only the ‘cool’ kids used to smoke in the 80s and 90s, of course they did, they had massive social anxieties about being at the top of the social ladder and staying there. All the teenagers I went to secondary school with who were ‘cool’ drank significant quantities. The two are linked in my view.
The problem is, with people not smoking and drinking as quick fixes to cure anxieties these days, we are now left in the cold with very little that we can easily do about it. Be under no illusion, I am under no circumstances suddenly advocating for a generation to start taking up habits which have taken years to break in society and were causing countless costs in death and health bills to our population, but there has to be another way society can start to look at anxiety.
Anxiety is a uniquely human problem for a uniquely human condition. We need to have an open discussion about it to see what can be done.