National Stress Awareness Day: Is the fear of social failure making us more anxious than ever?

On social media sites we often display our level of success in life - editing the sad bits out. We're keeping up with the Joneses on a global scale

Today is National Stress Awareness Day. On such a day it seems appropriate to reflect on the results of a recent poll carried out by YouGov for the TUC, in which two thirds of employed people said that their workload had increased in recent years and that going to work is more stressful than ever. Last month, the Health and Safety Executive also informed us that almost half a million people suffered workplace-related stress, depression or anxiety in the last financial year.

Clearly, we are stressed and we hate it. Stress carries a heavy psychological price, which too often is translated into feelings of depression and anxiety.

Anxiety is a natural emotion. It is necessary because it has a crucially important protective function. A fearless life tends to be a very short life. Heroic perhaps, but short.

Danger needs to be associated with an unpleasant sensation, or otherwise we wouldn’t take it seriously. Being disagreeable is therefore a necessary characteristic of the emotion charged with the task of signalling danger, a “must” in its job description, and anxiety fulfils it to perfection. In the scale of unpleasantness, it is up there with pain. They both form part of the “punishment” circuitry of the brain.

Anxiety and pain also share their urgency. They demand immediate attention. Like pain, anxiety is simply impossible to ignore. It has an imposing presence, a “look at me” prima donna attitude. It is difficult to satisfy and impossible to put aside.  But anxiety should be directed towards tangible dangers, such as injury or death, or perhaps abandonment, not a deadline at work, or the anticipation of yet another difficult interaction with an unpleasant boss.

In a survey carried out by the Office for National Statistics in the year 2000, twenty-nine per cent of British adults reported sleep problems and nineteen per cent complained of feeling worried. Ten per cent said they were depressed. Women were more anxious than men. Being middle-aged, living alone and being divorced or separated, were other characteristics associated with the likelihood of feeling anxious.

Anxiety resides inside our brains, more specifically in a region deep in the structure of this organ, called the Limbic System. In evolutionary terms, this region is very old, because the emotions it generates were as necessary to our hominid ancestors as they are to us now.

In the nineteenth century, a distinguished neurologist called George Beard attributed anxiety, which was already very prevalent, to urbanization and the advent of scary technological advances, such as the steam engine. Others blamed even scarier social changes, such as the emancipation of women. During the "Long Depression" of the eighteen-seventies, many bankers were admitted to lunatic asylums, victims of “Business Anxiety”, according to contemporaneous press reports.

Something that seems to scare us particularly nowadays is the phantom of social failure, which in this brave new world would not be suggested by a sad and solitary existence, but rather by a meagre social media profile.

A recent survey of 2,000 people found that a large social media network was the clear winner as a measure of personal value. Not personal experiences, not knowledge, not even wealth itself, apparently rate as high in our ambitions as a big presence in social media. The survey also showed, rather surprisingly, that this is especially so amongst the baby-boomers, the very age bracket that the ONS identified as being more anxious than the rest.

Like school reunions, an important function of social media profiles is to display - in a conveniently favourable light - one’s level of success in life. The sad bits are edited out, while the exciting parts are accentuated. There is an anxious need to amass a growing number of electronic friends and followers and the inevitable comparisons lead to even more anxiety. It is nothing but old-fashioned status anxiety, a need to keep up with the Joneses, but in a new and more modern format.

When anxiety becomes more or less constant or “free-floating”, the time has come to try to address it. If the need to succeed and compete is at the root of the problem, then one will have to shift some priorities. Otherwise, there are tablets, of course, and there are also talking therapies, like CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy). Mindfulness, a type of meditation which emphasises the need to pay attention “in the present moment”, is a very effective way of managing stress and anxiety. A new and very effective treatment called repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (rTMS) has now become available. It doesn’t involve tablets, using instead magnetic fields to stimulate the brain.

Kafka said that his anxiety was his “substance”, and probably the best part of him. I share his appreciation of this important emotion, but I’m not quite as proud of my own anxiety as Kafka was of his. Personally, I would rather keep it at bay. If your anxiety gets out of hand, there are ways to modulate it and make it more bearable. Often, the first step is to acknowledge the problem and seek help. There is no shortage of things to be scared of, but seeking help shouldn’t be one of them.

Life is very scary. Being alive can be dangerous for your health, but the risks are inevitable: even the luckiest person will have to face adversity and eventual death. It can be argued therefore that feeling a little frightened is in fact quite appropriate, particularly in these very stressful times. But such an urgent and disagreeable sensation shouldn’t emanate from spurious fantasies of social success, measured in the size of our electronic profiles, or even from a need to succeed – whatever that means.

Dr Rafael Euba, Consultant Psychiatrist, The London Psychiatry Centre

For help and information visit http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress

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