A few months back, I was hanging out with a few friends and we were having a bout of rare male vulnerability. The topic: anxiety and depression.
One friend disclosed to us he used to go home in tears nearly every day after work and wanted to quit so badly. The other had exhibited symptoms of claustrophobia.
Myself? Well, let’s just say I was able to outline a back-and-forth between periods of crippling anxiety and detrimental depression. No matter how hard I tried, it always seemed to come for me like a thief in the night.
This got me curious, though. I’m not denying the reality of traumatic events, genetic predispositions, or the harmful social media effects in today’s world. But I got out from under my rock enough to see that anxiety had hit like it was the new pandemic.
Covid was scary, and there’s data to back up a correlation, but I think It’s more than that. I noticed that as we spoke, none of us had a particularly stressful career, (not first responders or military service) a decent work-life balance, and no noteworthy childhood traumas. And yet, here we were, battling senseless anxiety unbelievably disproportionate to reality. I dug some more.
Who has anxiety, anyway?
The World Health Organization (WHO) conducted research to compare generalised anxiety disorders (GAD) and demographic correspondence.
Meanwhile, in 2017, Stat News pointed out something that baffled researchers. The richest countries had the highest amount of confirmed GAD cases. The poorest countries reported the lowest GAD rate.
But it did not baffle me. I expected this. Through my conversation, I could see a trend, a common denominator. Anxiety disorders flourish where (enter safe space, now) life is too easy.
There, I said it. Don’t leave yet, there’s more.
Enter, Abraham Harold Maslow
This is the man who stole the food pyramid design for his own theories. I joke, but really, it’s the same.
Maslow was an American psychologist who emphasised humanistic psychology over the course of his career and became a pioneer that challenged the overarching negativity festering from theories developed by Freud and Skinner.
The typical first-world country, however, rarely comes in contact with the “basic needs” section of the pyramid.
As it turns out, the state of being at the top tiers is where many meet their inevitable demise.
At the base of the brain, we have the Amygdala, responsible for our “fight or flight” response, our instincts. Reptiles have this, as mammals, birds, and every species. This is where fear lives, sometimes referred to as anxiety. Its design is to be used for survival situations and to promote life over death.
In many impoverished nations, people teeter between the Physiological and Safety categories on a day-to-day basis. One could argue that their stress responses are being appropriately directed in these conditions, and therefore, not developing into an anxiety disorder.
But human nature is a dastardly thing. Gluttonous even. As we move up the scale, we keep reaching for more. And I’d bet money that the richest countries in the world are spending most of their time flirting with self-actualisation but struggling to get past self-esteem issues long enough for it to stick. We do not challenge our basic instincts at the physiological level. So, that fear has to go somewhere, right?
I want to be clear, this is a theory from an amateur, but hear me out.
I’m an American, so imagine the time each day I have to think about myself, and what I want to come to fruition. Am I gaining the success I want, the notoriety I want, the stuff I want? I’ll answer for you – plenty.
Maslow’s theory was founded on the idea that as we grow to each new stage, we are unlocking the door to human potential. Don’t get me wrong, many have reached the top of this pyramid and live great lives while doing amazing things for humanity. Unfortunately, many who reach for that next tier become blinded by self-centred ambition, a disproportionate need for acceptance, and a crippling fear of judgment. We become so self-absorbed and concerned with status and materialism that it brings us to our knees with worry that we won’t be able to live the life that our culture has deemed necessary to be happy.
All the while a malnourished toddler in Northern Africa tries to find a minuscule helping of grain before he goes to bed.
Imagine for a moment that you have relational strife with a spouse or family member, stress at work due to poor reviews, unpaid bills that are piling up, and an unremarkable social following.
I can feel the anxiety building just writing that.
Now, imagine you go to sleep with the burden of all these things compounding on your shoulders, toss and turn through the night, and suddenly smell smoke. The house is on fire. Are you going to care about any of those things? I’d bet not. Even your vanity will go out the window as you get your family out in nothing but your underwear. Your Amygdala is firing on all cylinders, as it should in this scenario. But all the superfluous cares of the world vanish in a moment because your physiological needs have taken precedence.
So, what am I saying?
I challenge you. Right now. Think about the “lower needs” that are being met as we speak. When we take a posture of gratefulness and humility, don’t the stresses lighten up?
Conner Cox is a mental health advocate.