I was sitting with a philosopher friend of mine discussing life and its many joys and trials when he came out with something along the lines of “anxiety is actually just grief that we’ve had to try and deal with in isolation.” “Now there’s something to chew on,” said my mind. “What if this wave of anxiety that seems to be plaguing so many people is actually the result of unprocessed grief, and the fact that we are trying to deal with it as individuals instead of as a collective?” hmmm…
FROM PERSONAL TO COLLECTIVE
I don’t know how this reframing strikes you, but to me it made a whooole lot sense. Some people experience anxiety as a result of nerves frayed by too much stress, too little sleep, too many stimulants, too little contact with nature, genetics and personal history. A combination of all these factors is relatively common these days and is definitely enough reason for anyone to crash and burn.
Above and beyond that though, why do there seem to be sooo many people experiencing severe anxiety “all of a sudden”? Is it just that I have only begun to notice it at this stage in my life? I was raised with an awareness of the ways in which stored emotions can erupt as physical or emotional symptoms. For some reason though, I had never thought very deeply specifically about anxiety and its possible roots. It seemed like just one of those things that some people struggle with for a variety of personal reasons. But what if that dismissal of anxiety as a personal issue is actually a large part of the problem itself?
BREAKING OUT OF ISOLATION
Many health issues create social stigma, anxiety among them. We feel embarrassed and humiliated by our lack of ability to “function” for reasons beyond our comprehension. We feel that we should be able to “deal” with this “problem” on our own. We feel the need to hide away and isolate ourselves so that no one has to see our vulnerability and so no one can judge our apparent “weakness.”
To see anxiety, or any number of states of being we may see as “personal problems (e.g. depression),” as a result of isolation and an attempt to process internalized emotions flips our current approach to these issues on its head. What if as someone who experiences anxiety you did not feel ashamed and stigmatized and dysfunctional? What if instead you felt supported by a community of others who understood this as a natural result of built up, unexpressed raw emotion?
CANARIES IN THE COAL MINE
I am someone who has struggled my whole life with a feeling of occasionally overwhelming sensitivity to the suffering of others. When I say others, I don’t just mean other people. I find the destruction and disregard of Life in all forms deeply saddening and sometimes paralyzing. Luckily, I am also someone who learned early on to cry, to sob, to sing, to yell, to connect to a sense of greater belonging and to creatively express any manner of intense emotion.
Now, if I were to imagine my life as a witness and participant in our society’s incredibly rapid rate of change, a constant bombardment with violent and coercive images and news stories that expose me to the whole spectrum of suffering and complex problems world-wide without having any clear way to move that all through and out of my body… I can only being to imagine the amount of pure unprocessed emotion that would create. I can only imagine how those emotions might begin to pile up and fester to the point where all the pressure had to be released in one form or another.
As sensitive beings connected to the whole web of life, it seems obvious that we would be deeply affected by more than our own personal histories. We are part of a collective story unfolding around and within us at every moment. Taking this awareness to the next level means acknowledging how struggles like severe anxiety are issues that go beyond the individual. Those of us experiencing these intense fluxes are perhaps just the proverbial “canaries in the coal mine,” indicators of a deeper, pervasive malaise. Anxiety, depression and all other forms of instability in our systems are a call to widespread action, to move forward in a direction that respects our collective needs as part of this living earth.