Anxiety Attack

Recently, after resting for a year, I prepared myself to return to work for a large bureaucratic company. The prospect of going back into the corporate world filled me with dread, but my money had run out so it looked like I had no choice. I got the job after a successful act of deception at the job interview. This involved hiding all my real motivations and feelings, and over-using words like “opportunity” and “challenge.” The interviewer seemed convinced that I was there out of free choice and enthusiasm, rather than financial dilemma and survival anxiety.

Financial anxiety turns most of us into “useful idiots”, a term used by the intelligence community, meaning those who unwittingly end up serving the purposes of others, while still believing in their own freedom and autonomy. In the everyday world of tedious wage-slavery, useful idiots can be identified by their claim to like their jobs. When so many people seem to enjoy being economic slaves, or at least pretend to, one begins to suspect something beyond deluded sentimentality – something sinister and pathological.

When so many people seem to enjoy being economic slaves, one begins to suspect something sinister and pathological.

We’re living in an anxiety culture and we’re driven by fear. If that sounds like an exaggeration, take a look at some figures. According to a recent major survey commissioned by the government, more than 10 percent of the population suffer from a neurotic anxiety disorder (1). The most common problem is a mixed anxiety and depressive disorder, affecting 7 percent of people. Vast quantities of tranquillisers and anti-depressants are prescribed in the UK – eighty million prescriptions in 1994, and rapidly rising since (2). Sixty percent of employees suffer from feelings of insecurity and anxiety. Forty three percent have problems sleeping because of work worries. Fifty four percent fret over inadequate income (3).

This statistical picture seems at odds with the grinning, self-assured yuppie reality beamed into our living rooms during commercial breaks. The advertisers portray a world where all normal people drive expensive new cars and smile perpetually. The message is: good sex-bonding is available only to those who live like this. The use of sex in advertising may seem crude and obvious, but the effect, through repetition, is to emotionally sensitise social comparison, so people feel humiliated driving old cars, for example. No one is really immune from these social-comparison anxieties, not even the marketers themselves – a recent survey shows advertising executives to be “plagued by self-doubt and insecurity” (4).

Schools are factories for turning carefree souls into obedient, economically frightened clones.

There are strong vested interests in keeping public anxiety at a high level. Anxious people make good consumers – they tend to eat and drink compulsively, need more distractions (newspapers, TV, etc) and more external buttressing of their fragile self-image through lifestyle products and status symbols. Insurance companies and the whole financial services industry make billions from our financial insecurities. The unsubtle targeting of our fears is evident in adverts for vehicle recovery services, cars, alarms, security systems, mobile phones, private health care, chewing gum, deodorant and so on. Employers benefit if the workers fear losing their jobs – fearful people are less likely to complain or rebel. Studies show that people are more suggestible and compliant when anxious. Politicians quote “public fears” as justification for more freedom-eroding legislation. Insecure populations show a tendency to elect authoritarian governments. You can probably think of many more examples. In a word, governments and corporations gladly reap the harvests of high public anxiety.

Anxiety can be induced in a population by constantly focusing on the threat of crime in an exaggerated way. This has the ‘advantage’ of directing fear towards ‘bad’ individuals who break the law, rather than the institutions which make the laws. In a recent MORI poll, half of those questioned believed that tabloid newspapers have a vested interest in making people more afraid of crime. In 1995, the makers of Frontline, a Channel 4 documentary on crime, requested interviews with the editors of the Daily Mail, Daily Mirror, Sun, Daily and Sunday Express, Today, People and Star, to ask how they justified their sensationalised crime coverage. They all refused to be interviewed (5).

The real function of “individual responsibility” is social conformity.

The news headlines often give the impression of paedophiles or killers on every street corner, murdering every passing child. The official statistics present a much different picture. According to government figures only five children are murdered by strangers each year in England and Wales, on average (6). Most child homicides are in fact committed by the parents. Over the last 25 years there has been no increase in child murder by strangers. The overall murder rate (all ages) is the same now as it was in 1857 (roughly 13 per million of the population per year) (7).

Unfortunately, many people believe the crime hype. A third of elderly women fear going outside, but only one in 4000 will be assaulted (8). Statistically, the elderly and young children are the groups least at risk from attack – but because the newspapers cover all violent crimes involving the young and the very old, they seem common. Meanwhile, the climate of fear being created is out of all proportion to the real threat of crime for most people.

One effect of our over-stimulated fear of crime is increased paranoia and suspicion. If I take a stroll through the park, will the woman ahead think I’m stalking her? If I see a child in distress, do I assist or mind my own business? Some school teachers were recently reported to be in difficulty deciding whether to apply sun-protection lotion to young children. On one hand there was the risk of skin cancer, and on the other the risk of child sex-abuse accusation. Welcome to anxiety society.

The climate of fear being created is out of all proportion to the real threat of crime for most people.

Most anxiety results from what we’ve been thinking, rather than external events. We’re immersed in fear-inducing belief systems, but it’s invisible to us. Unfortunately, exposure to these fearful beliefs starts in early childhood, before we can develop any intellectual defences. We receive a thorough ‘anxiety conditioning’, which is our real childhood education. Schools are factories for turning carefree souls into obedient, economically frightened clones. Children are also exposed daily to the anxious thoughts of their parents – generally known as “parental concern”, although the less sentimentally inclined may prefer to call it neurosis. Parents demonstrate how loving and responsible they are by worrying all the time. This is regarded as perfectly normal in our society.

So what are the main anxiety-inducing beliefs? Perhaps the most insidious is “original sin” – the notion that, in essence, we’re morally “bad”, and must redeem ourselves through hard work and suffering. This belief’s poisonous tentacles reach into your mind, causing you to see life as a burden to endure, rather than as a fantastic adventure. It manifests as the idea that you’re infinitely undeserving – that reward, ie happiness, will always be contingent upon the endurance of some unpleasant activity such as work. It surfaces as the feeling that you’re not good enough, or that something is wrong with you – a tendency exploited to the maximum by big business. It also makes you feel guilty.

The original sin worldview can, however, be subverted with psychological gimmicks. For example, try believing that you deserve to be paid for doing nothing. Dismiss the notion that you have to “earn” anything. You earned your life by being born – now you deserve to relax. Quit your job and go on holiday, or call in sick as often as possible. Remove all forms of guilt from your mind. Go to extremes of laziness and indulge yourself deluxe-style every day. Spend the day in bed watching videos, eating Belgian chocolates and drinking Green Chartreuse, or whatever gets you relaxed and high – then take it easier next day.

We’re immersed in fear-inducing belief systems, but they’re invisible to us.

Another insidious anxiety-inducer to watch out for is the belief that you should be responsible. This puts people under tremendous strain. You don’t choose your genetic make-up or the conditions in which you grow up, yet all the unfortunate things that happen are your fault. This sense of responsibility is obviously false – you can’t even be responsible for your next thought. True responsibility would require all-seeing, all-knowing divine power – it’s not something for fallible individuals to attempt.

Of course, the real function of “individual responsibility” is social conformity. Society holds you accountable if you don’t comply with its definition of your responsibilities. It’s a big social con-trick – with the “responsible individual” as dupe. The attraction of responsibility (all con-tricks have an attraction) is that it allows people total conformity without removing the facade of individuality – it’s the kind of concept that advertising agencies dream about.

Responsibility sees everything as a problem needing a solution – usually involving endless work and expenditure. It’s part of a conspiracy of stupidity undermining claims that we can work less and take it easy. Any intelligent attempt to drastically cut working hours is resisted on the basis that it’s irresponsible. As a result we continue to work for a responsible (but arbitrary) 40 hours a week instead of a more sensible 40 minutes.

Politicians – the experts on responsibility – see joblessness as the ultimate irresponsible lifestyle. It never occurs to them that their idea of responsibility might not be universal. Many people feel a “responsibility” to quit work in order to widen their knowledge and develop their potential. From this viewpoint, work is an “irresponsible” cop-out – a last refuge of the fearful and ignorant.