The rise of anxiety in the age of inequality

In a world so focused on mindless consumption and status acquisition, the developed world’s epidemic of anxiety and depression should come as no surprise.

Graham Peebles
20 May 2017

Lyza/Flickr. Some rights reserved.Anxiety and depression are at unprecedented levels worldwide and the numbers are growing. The World Health Organization (WHO) describe it as an epidemic, and report that the period between 1990 and 2013 saw close to a 50% increase in the number of people suffering from one or both of these conditions, with the figure rising to 615 million people – almost 10% of the world’s population. Given that many developing countries have yet to be extensively polled, these figures, while staggering, provide in all likelihood only an indication of the depth of the problem.

The weight of expectation

What are the factors that create such a fear-inducing, hostile environment? Why do so many people regard the world as unkind, intolerant and life as something to be feared?

In a recent programme broadcast on BBC Radio 4, listeners were invited to share their stories of anxiety. Parents rang in to tell of children – nineteen, twelve, nine years of age – who are living with the debilitating condition. Many callers spoke of being reduced to tears when listening to the accounts being related: children and teenagers unable to go to school; middle-aged men too anxious to face the world; and women unable to step out of their homes and engage with life for fear of ridicule.

A recurring theme was a lack of self-confidence and an inability to live up to expectations – perceived or actual. These might be expectations constructed at school, where competition and conformity rule the classroom; within relationships where a list of qualities and attitudes are deemed to be required; and at work where the profit imperative rules, and those who maximise returns succeed.

Debilitating feelings of inadequacy and inferiority flow from such negative, restrictive ideas of self, feeding anxiety and causing inhibition of all kinds – mental, emotional and physical. Such effects make it more difficult for people to step into unknown areas, be it to enquire, take risks, try something new, apply for work, dare to fail, raise their hand with an opinion or question, or challenge the authority of parents, teachers, employers, or the state.

Children with untreated anxiety disorders are at higher risk to perform poorly in school, miss out on important social experiences, and engage in substance abuse.

‘Status anxiety’ and ‘image anxiety’ were repeatedly mentioned by the listening experts, as symptoms of our materialistic, image-conscious times. While this impacts us all, young people are particularly afflicted, with one in eight British children affected by anxiety disorders according to The Guardian.

Research shows that children with untreated anxiety disorders are at higher risk to perform poorly in school, miss out on important social experiences, and engage in substance abuse. And in the US, anxiety blights the lives of 25% of teenagers. In girls, this figure rises to 30%, no doubt as they are under pressure to meet unattainable physical, social and academic ideals. "It started when I was 15," Claire, an anxiety sufferer, told The Guardian, "when I realised that I wasn't pretty or intelligent, or as good as I thought I was."

Image and status anxiety relate not only to physical appearance but the image of who and what we are – or what we think we are – in the context of a society that judges by looks, position, wealth and social background. In such a world, status – the station attained or bestowed – conditions how we are seen by others, and is regarded as all-important.

An identity is constructed by various factors, all of which carry an association and, as such, proclaim social position and affiliation, advertising more or less loudly the size of one’s bank account. In this shallow social environment, the accumulation of material riches is given undue emphasis, with factors such as one’s possessions or educational history taking precedent. The meeting of need—food, shelter, healthcare, education – is replaced with the fulfilment of desire: the cultivation of want.

Sufficiency is laughed at, abundance encouraged, waste ignored and human dignity eroded. And if – as is the case for the majority – the means to consume, compete and dominate, are lacking, self-worth falters, anxiety envelops, depression threatens and suicide lies in wait. And for those able to shell out on all that is decreed desirable, the weight of expectation and comparison amongst peers brings about its own pressures.

Economic inequality and anxiety

One of the major causes of anxiety generally – and specifically of ‘status anxiety’ – is wealth and income inequality. Evidence published by Richard G Wilkinson, author of The Impact of Inequality, showed that in developed countries, mental illnesses “were three times as common in societies where there were bigger income differences between rich and poor.” This means that “an American is likely to know three times as many people with depression or anxiety problems as someone from countries such as in Japan and or Germany,” where inequality is not as extreme.

The degree of worldwide inequality that now exists is staggering; with the gap between the stupendously rich and the rest greater than it has ever been. In January 2016, Oxfam UK reported that the equivalent wealth of the poorest half of the world's population – 3.6 billion people – is concentrated into the hands of a mere 62 individuals. And this number has been falling dramatically, from 388 as recently as 2010, and 80 last year, while the wealth of the poorer half has shrunk by a trillion USD since 2010.

Inequality is a gross form of social injustice, a moral crime that creates divisions, feeds resentment and works against humanity’s essential unity. It feeds a range of negative social issues, translating into unequal education, health and employment opportunities, differing access to arts and culture, and division into gated worlds of privilege for the rich and run down ghettos or uniform housing estates for the poor.  

Mania and narcissism are related to our striving for status and dominance, while anxiety and depression may involve responses to the experience of subordination.

In our ‘age of inequality’, the understandable resentment that is fed by wealth disparity creates divisions and distrust of others. This, Wilkinson says, is “partly a reflection of the way status anxiety makes us all more worried about how we are valued” – or indeed devalued – ”by others.” The existence of extreme poverty and excessive wealth is a gross form of social injustice – and works against humanity’s essential unity.

Under the current socio-economic model, ambition is promoted and people are encouraged to strive for status and dominance in a ‘dog eat dog world’ where ‘everyone’s out for themselves’. This cultivates notions of superiority and inferiority; dominance and subservience.

In a study headed by Sheri Johnson at the University of California, Berkeley, it was found that conditions such as “mania and narcissism are related to our striving for status and dominance, while disorders such as anxiety and depression may involve responses to the experience of subordination.” As such, it may be likely that the epidemic of anxiety and depression is but one consequence of the selfish, violent environment created by our socio-economic system.

This epidemic may be inevitable within a system that is inherently unjust – and by design. The ruling elite – a privileged coterie made up mainly of corporations and banks – do not want the masses to be economically secure, emotionally stable or psychologically content. A perpetual state of unease, insecurity and fear is cultivated to facilitate the greatest degree of control, allowing for the manipulation of behaviour, the exploitation of millions, and the erosion of human dignity.

If we are to substantially tackle the worldwide mental health crisis, we need to replace such worn-out, destructive attitudes with values that unite people and encourage cooperation, sharing and mutual understanding. When such principles of goodness prevail, a healthy society with social justice at its heart will be able to evolve, diffusing tensions and making the realisation of peace a possibility.

Overcoming fear

In addition to social pressures, a variety of situations and emotional demands trigger anxiety: uncertainty, and the longing for security – emotional, romantic, economic, health – the reactions of others to what we say and do; anxiety that one may lose a loved one to death, to someone else, through a misunderstanding, a ‘falling out’.

From pleasure arises sorrow and from pleasure arises fear. If a man is free from pleasure, he is free from fear and sorrow.

Anxiety is fear; it inhibits and conditions action. Freedom from anxiety will naturally follow the overcoming of fear. Fear is complex, of course, subtle and hard to reach, entwined with desire and pleasure. Freedom from fear and its crippling effect is dependent on the release from desire and a life lived in the pursuit of pleasure, as the Buddha made clear in that treasure of truth, the Dhammapada: “From pleasure arises sorrow and from pleasure arises fear. If a man is free from pleasure, he is free from fear and sorrow.”

The great teacher J. Krishnamurti, too, made clear the imperative of freeing oneself from the shackles of pleasure in order to combat anxiety: “Fear and pleasure are the two sides of a coin: you cannot be free of one without being free of the other also.”

Psychological fear is a product of time – not chronological time, but time as thought. We experience anxiety not about what is actually taking place, but about what may happen in the future. This future could be moments, days or years ahead: the coming interview, making the next month’s rent, meeting a new person, and so on.

We can begin to mitigate this psychological fear by placing ourselves firmly in the now – the ‘eternal now’ as it is called in esotericism. Total commitment to the activity of the moment—with no thought of its result, impact, or success – will help hold the mind steady, arrest its momentum. As the Buddha taught: “when you walk, just walk. When you eat, just eat.”

This is, admittedly, easier said than done. Strategies that reclaim control often prove helpful. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is recommended by various mental health charities, and helped Claire to begin to manage her anxiety: “I had 10 sessions, which was all I could afford, and it changed everything. You have to commit to CBT; you have to put the time aside. But it does work. I still have bad days, but at least now I have a strategy."

Whilst we all have the responsibility to change the way we individually respond to life as it impacts us, it is clear that the present socio-economic atmosphere encourages certain behaviour and creates the circumstances in which fear is highly probable, if not inevitable – certainly to those with a predisposition to worry.

A new and just system is urgently needed to allow people to live healthy, harmonious lives that are free from anxiety. One that isn’t rooted in competition, and does not revolve around money or foster comparisons. A model that, instead of promoting a stifling blanket of greed and suspicion, encourages values arising out of a sense of unity and brotherhood: cooperation, tolerance, understanding and fairness.

Our problems – individual, collective and environmental – are interconnected. Anxiety, like many other crises facing humanity, is part of the river of consequences flowing from a certain approach to life. We have allowed systems of governance and control to evolve that work against humanity’s inherent unity, are detrimental to our health and the well-being of the planet. Now it’s time for something new.

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