Concordian’s new book examines our ‘age of anxiety’
In Anxiety in Middle-Class America: Sociology of Emotional Insecurity in Late Modernity, Concordia professor of sociology Valérie de Courville Nicol examines what is reportedly the most common mental illness in the United States: anxiety.
Her book emphasizes that anxiety is more than biological or psychological and requires a holistic approach to understand and manage.
‘Anxiety itself has become an experience that makes us anxious’
As you point out in your book, anxiety is reportedly the most common mental illness in the United States. What is it about our time that is making us so anxious?
de Courville Nicol: The scope of anxiety today is enormous. We have become aware of the endless risks and catastrophic potential we are generating in post-industrial societies, despite our best intentions (and those of our ancestors) to make the world a better place.
Anxiety is a feeling of discomfort that we generate when we perceive vague threats that become meaningful to us because they are repetitive or acute. If we experience too many intense threats all the time, or if we lack access to means of dealing with them, we become overwhelmed and distressed, and we generate feelings of dread, grief, suffocation, and exhaustion.
In our age of anxiety, we must anticipate an ever-greater range of harms for which we might be held accountable. Our anxiety serves to motivate our efforts at defining what these harms are so that we might confront, mitigate, prevent, or make peace with them. That makes for a lot of anxiety.
How do you see your research contributing to the conversation around our current moment of anxiety, for example in terms of the COVID-19 pandemic?
DCN: Anxiety itself has become an experience that makes us anxious, and it has become a widespread mental health problem, a public health problem, and a problem for sociologists.
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the anxieties of an already anxious population. Feelings of anxiety have become so constant, widespread, and intense that more and more people feel overwhelmed.
Sociologists have studied the effects of high or chronic anxiety levels in populations with concepts like moral panics and scapegoating. Anxiety can motivate stigmatization, bullying, persecution, and a whole range of destructive, hateful behaviors directed towards oneself or others. We can think of the anti-vaxxer movement as driven by anxiety in this destructive sense but blaming anti-vaxxers for the current situation is unhelpful because either way, we are generating a figure of blame onto which we project our anger.
When the more powerful identify and punish social villains (witch-hunts are a classic example), the stability of existing power structures and norms is reinforced, and the deeper problems that may need to be addressed are unhelpfully displaced on scapegoats. Villains act as moral exemplars of what not to do and motivate compliance with rules. This blaming creates a pleasurable sense of belonging for those in the in-group and it generates productive energy and motivates acts of heroism that inspire further compliance. But it also generates a painful sense of exclusion in group outsiders, who may be victims of social wrongdoing such as classism, racism, or ableism. Blaming encourages polarization and radicalization and it encourages those who are its target to find their own targets in spirals of shame and rage. We can understand the entitled racism, sexism, and homophobia of a variety of groups who feel wronged in this way.
What makes sense from the embodied perspective of a person is deeply embedded in their sociological context, like people stocking up on toilet paper during the initial confinement. We can consider this from the angle of peoples’ affective need for physical comfort and efficiency, but also their cognitive need for predictability and planning and their social need for cocooning with loved ones and doing right by others by staying home. The rush for massive amounts of toilet paper may have seemed odd, but we can make sense of it when we think that people were making decisions quickly, under pressure and with a limited amount of information and reference points for what was going on.
What groups suffer the most from anxiety?
DCN: Parents are a group that gets a lot of blame for emotionally harming their kids, which is unfair and unhelpful. In our current social system, many parents cannot meet their basic needs for comfort, rest, security, and respect, and they experience a lot of anxiety. Of course, this affects their kids. So many of our youth are struggling. We must help the parents if we want to help the kids. And the many other people in demanding caregiving and socializing roles. Many parents are in underpaid, low-status jobs. And many parents who have better jobs experience other forms of precarity, like time scarcity and unrealistic performance pressures.
If we look at this from the perspective of stress researchers, it isn’t anxiety per se that is the problem. Problems arise when we feel that we cannot cope with stressors. Pushing ourselves beyond our limits has biological, psychological, and sociological consequences. A chronically stressed person or a person who experiences acute stress does not make decisions in the same way as a person who feels that they can handle what comes their way or that it is business as usual. Many of us live from crisis to crisis, which affects decision-making, not only in our private lives but also in our public ones.
What can we learn about how to manage anxiety by looking at it from a cultural, historical, sociological perspective instead of a purely medical one?
DCN: Individual-centered medical and psychological approaches can only do so much. The biological, psychological and sociological dimensions of our being form a dynamic whole. We need to develop more strategies that engage across the mind, body, and society.
In my work, I emphasize that anxiety, and emotional experience in general, are not merely biological or psychological phenomena but fundamentally sociological. We generate emotional experience on an ongoing basis. It is a way of taking in and responding to the world, telling us how we are faring.
As a sociologist, I am fascinated by popular therapeutic trends, and they are a rich source of information about what ails us and what seems to help. In my book, this is how I understand the therapeutic strategies recommended by self-help authors. Let’s take mindfulness as an example. This approach makes so much sense in a world where we must manage ambiguity, unpredictability and hyperstimulation and practice self-care, self-observation, and self-discovery.
Should we worry about current anxiety levels? What can we do?
DCN: Anxiety is part of human life, and it motivates our curiosity and creativity, making individual and collective change possible in our drive to feel secure. I think that we can achieve deep and lasting feelings of emotional security if we meet our basic social, cognitive, and affective needs on an ongoing basis.
Our current struggles with anxiety are a good indicator that we need to make significant changes. History tells us that too much anxiety can lead to distress-driven solutions like war, violent revolution, and genocide. We need to develop a more sustainable way of life for all, and all this anxiety means that we are not sufficiently meeting our emotional security needs.
We can transmit shame, guilt, hate, resentment, helplessness. We need to spend time loosening the emotional knots in ourselves and our communities so that we can move from shame into empowerment.
Attend the launch of Anxiety in Middle-Class America: Sociology of Emotional Insecurity in Late Modernity on Friday, February 11 at 3 p.m. on Zoom.