TRIGGER WARNING: Opening paragraphs consist of a personal description of a panic attack. If this may upset you please skip forward to the 4th paragraph.
It starts with a sickening turning feeling in the centre of my stomach, usually accompanied by the beginnings of a headache. Quickly these mild sensations of sickness escalate as my brain turns them over and makes them larger and more serious than before.
My palms are sweating, my chest is tight, my brain feels like it is trying to escape, like my skull is far too small to contain it. Small pains fire up around my body; on my back, my feet, down my arms. My limbs feel like they are an excessive part of body, I feel like I couldn’t control them, needing to flap them around to confirm their continued alignment to me. Every bit of my body just feels completely alien. I feel like I need to pee and vomit all at once. In short, I feel like I’m about to die.
But then as quickly as it appeared and escalated into something entirely out of my control it is gone. I’m left slightly shook up and still feeling slightly queasy but able to continue my day and do whatever it was that I so firmly did not want to do before that my subconscious brought up a hundred different illnesses to stop me.
This is nothing extraordinary (which is something I must repeatedly remind myself), statistics show that 1 in 4 adults in the UK will experience some form of mental health in a year, most commonly anxiety and/or depression. From my personal experiences I believe this figure might even be a bit conservative or at least a figure that is growing. Almost every one of my friends and other young people that I know suffers or has suffered from one of these issues (to varying degrees). Even so these figures are shocking. It makes one question whether this is the way things should be.
Are these anxieties, these everyday stresses, just a natural part of the human condition? Or is this a symptom of the fact that the way our evolution has progressed is fundamentally wrong, evidence that we all struggle to achieve happy lives?
Of course we must consider the fact that anxiety is part of a natural reaction to a sense of threat or danger, a remainder of the fight or flight instinct that would’ve regularly saved our ancient ancestors lives. But then when we consider how relatively sheltered and safe the majority of western civilisation’s life is one must wonder how these instinctive impulses can still play such a major role in so many people’s lives.
These natural threats, such as hungry lions or stampeding herds, are now often replaced by the threat that comes with economic instability. So, understandably, these mental health problems are more prevalent in people of low income. Everyday can continue to be a threat, with fears of how to pay that looming bill or feed the family or repay that high interest loan that was needed to pay the last bill and fill the fridge the month before. Many will find themselves in a vicious circle of money woes with little (free) aid at hand. As early as the 1950s and 60s studies found ‘a direct relationship between the experience of poverty and a high rate of emotional disturbance’ and we may safely say that the situation has only worsened since then. What with financial crisis and persistent bullying and scapegoating of those who struggle most in society, it is no wonder that many people find their mental health gravely suffering.
However these problems are not exclusive to those financially struggling. It is not uncommon for the well off to find themselves anxious or depressed about their lives or in general. This may at times be due to conscious or subconscious acknowledgement of the wrongs they have done; one can only hope Cameron’s nights are restless. Another answer may be that the hungry lion has turned into our own hunger for consumption, making life an endless trial of trying to fill a void with material possessions.
What’s worse is when these material possessions only serve to remind you of this issue. This fact is addressed, as part of a thematic attack on capitalism, in the newest addition to the Grand Theft Auto series. In GTAV one of the characters, Michael, is introduced to us as a man who has succeeded and moved on from the crime scene but is soon bought back to it. We find him in his shrink’s office complaining how his life is unfulfilling. Although he has led an incredibly violent life it seems this is not the aspect that troubles him most (especially as the game makes extreme violence become an inherent aspect of your virtual life), his issue is more rooted in the fact that he is living the American Dream but he is not happy, he realised he couldn’t buy happiness with imported palm trees.
Although this example is fictional it is not entirely unrealistic. There are countless people who have reached for the luxurious ways of life and upon succeeding found that it was not all that sweet. It is this dog-eat-dog world of capitalism that has caused us to continue to be affected by the instincts that cause anxiety. It is this way of life too which makes us chase dreams that are depressingly unfulfilling. So we throw ourselves into means of distraction, like GTAV, that often cause us to find the real world even more unfulfilling and alienating.
The biological causes of our mental health problems may be natural but the stimuli that set them off are not. I don’t think it is too surprising that Denmark came top of Happiest Countries surveys when (despite still primarily being a capitalist country) it champions many aspects of social welfare. I’m not saying that ending capitalism would also be immediately ending all mental health problems but I believe it would significantly reduce numbers.
Žižek claims that anxiety is the only emotion that does not deceive, leading on from the Lacanian theory that anxiety is the only real emotion. One interpretation of these statements could be looking at our alienation. In a world ruled by money we are alienated from everything; ourselves, our friends and family, our work, our means of enjoyment. Anxiety may be seen as the most pure and natural reaction to being lost in this state of limbo where no attachment can be achieved and everything is uncertain.
The solution then is to rid ourselves of this way of life that causes us to be completely empty and entirely distant from anything that matters. We desperately need to reconnect ourselves to fulfilling activities and know that material possessions mean nothing. Capitalism is destructive for the planet and therefore destructive on our own mental states. Smashing the unreality of day-to-day life may be the only way to achieve an existence where we aren’t so often told “it’s perfectly normal to be anxious”.
Also posted on my personal blog at http://eeleereynolds.wordpress.com/ . Check it out if you want to see more.