We’ve had a tutorial on worry this year. The election campaign isn’t really about policy proposals, issue solutions or even hope. It’s led by two candidates who arouse gargantuan anxieties, fear and hatred in their opponents.
As a result, some mental health therapists are reporting that three-quarters of their patients are mentioning significant election-related anxiety. An American Psychological Association study found that more than half of all Americans are very or somewhat stressed by this race.
Of course, there are good and bad forms of anxiety – the kind that warns you about legitimate dangers and the kind that spirals into dark and self-destructive thoughts.
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In his book “Worrying,” Francis O’Gorman notes how quickly the good kind of anxiety can slide into the dark kind. “Worry is circular,” he writes. It may start with a concrete anxiety: Did I lock the back door? Is this headache a stroke? “And it has a nasty habit of taking off on its own, of getting out of hand, of spawning thoughts that are related to the original worry and which make it worse.”
That’s what’s happening this year. Anxiety is coursing through American society. It has become its own destructive character on the national stage.
Worry alters the atmosphere of the mind. It shrinks your awareness of the present and your ability to enjoy what’s around you right now. It cycles possible bad futures around in your head and forces you to live in dreadful future scenarios, 90 percent of which will never come true.
Pretty soon you are seeing the world through a dirty windshield. Worry dims every sunrise and amplifies mistrust. A mounting tide of anxiety makes people angrier about society and more darkly pessimistic about the possibility of changing it. Spiraling worry is the perverted underside of rationality.
This being modern polarized America, worry seems to come in two flavors.
Educated-class anxiety can often be characterized as a feeling overabundant of options without a core of convicting purpose. It’s worth noting that rich countries are more anxious than poorer ones. According to the World Health Organization, 18.2 percent of Americans report chronic anxiety while only 3.3 percent of Nigerians do.
Today, when you hear affluent people express worry, it’s usually related to the fear of missing out, and the dizziness of freedom. The affluent often feel besieged by busyness and plagued by a daily excess of choices. At the same time, there is a pervasive cosmic unease, the anxiety that they don’t quite understand the meaning of life, or have not surrendered to some all-encompassing commitment that would bring coherence and peace.
Many affluent people use money to buy privacy, and so cut themselves off from both the deep relationships that could give them purpose and the neighborly support systems that could hold them up if things go south.
This election has also presented members of the educated class with an awful possibility: that their pleasant social strata may rest on unstable molten layers of anger, bigotry and instability. How could this guy Trump get even 40 percent of the votes? America may be not quite the country we thought it was.
Among the less educated, anxiety flows from and inflames a growing sense that the structures of society are built for the exploitation of people like themselves. Everything is rigged; the rulers are malevolent and corrupt.
Last weekend’s “Black Jeopardy” skit on “Saturday Night Live” did a beautiful job of showing how this sensation overlaps among both progressive African-Americans and reactionary Trumpians.
It is a well-established fact that people who experience social exclusion have a tendency to slide toward superstitious and conspiratorial thinking. People who feel exploited by, and invisible to, those at the commanding heights of society are not going to worry if their candidate can’t pass a fact-check test. They just want someone who can share their exclusion and give them a better story.
Anxiety changes people. We’ve seen a level of thuggery this election cycle that is without precedent in recent American history. Some of the anti-Trump demonstrators seem more interested in violence than politics. Some of the Trumpians are savage.
David French wrote a shocking essay for National Review describing the appalling online abuse he suffered because of his anti-Trump stance. His anonymous assailants Photoshopped pictures of his daughter’s face in a gas chamber and left GIFs of grisly executions on his wife’s blog.
Some of the things that have made us vulnerable to this wave of anxiety are not going away – the narratives of fear, conspiracy and the immobilizing stress. America’s culture may be permanently changed for the worse.
But the answer to worry is the same as the answer to fear: direct action. If the next president starts enacting a slew of actual policies, then at least we can argue about concrete plans, rather than vague apocalyptic moods.
Furthermore, action takes us out of ourselves. Worry, like drama, is all about the self. As O’Gorman puts it, the worrier is the opposite of a lighthouse: “He doesn’t give out energy for the benefit of others. He absorbs energy at others’ cost.”
If you’re worrying, you’re spiraling into your own narcissistic pool. But concrete plans and actions thrust us into the daily fact of other people’s lives. This campaign will soon be over, and governing, thank God, will soon return.