By David Wong
Anxiety is feeling like a swarm of rats is eating your soul. Depression is feeling like it’s already been eaten. Raise your hand if you spend your time cycling between both.
Hey, me too! High five. Sorry my hand is wet — I sweat when I get nervous, and that caused me to drop my phone in the toilet. Give me five minutes to tell you why anxiety is trying to murder you.
Some of you just graduated college, or just lost a job, or are getting over a breakup. You have an unspoken assumption that your anxiety is due to the battle you’re fighting, and that once you push through, you’ll get a break. You’re wrong; right behind this fight is another one. It’s like that one video game where you have to fight a series of increasingly powerful characters across several “levels.” (I don’t remember what it was called. I remember one part had lava.)
Your anxiety isn’t going anywhere.
If you don’t figure out how to manage it, you’ll die.
Yes, I recognize the irony in me making you anxious about your anxiety levels, so here are a bunch of numbers:
The suicide rate is at a 30-year high …
… and that article points out that’s it’s just a symptom. We’re also seeing “surges in deaths from drug overdoses … liver disease and alcohol poisoning.” Death via all the shit we pour into our system to keep the gnawing soul rats at bay.
This is absolutely a new problem. Among high school and college students, rates of depression went up as much as 800 percent over 70 years, and prescriptions for antidepressants exploded 400 percent among adults just from 1988 to 2011. The weirdest stat of all? Anti-depression treatments are becoming less effective with time. That’s right, we’ve somehow evolved a strain of medication-resistant anxiety.
“Well of course,” you say, “That’s because the world has gone insane! Everyone is anxious/depressed for a reason!”
Oh, you’re anxious for a reason, alright. But it’s not because the world is worse — there were far more bad jobs, bad marriages, and nagging health issues 100 years ago.
Lewis Wickes Hine
Example: Coal mining was considered a legitimate children’s profession.
It’s because, wait for it …
Your anxiety is profitable to others.
I’m going to give you two mind-boggling stats that actually make perfect sense if you stop and think about them a bit:
When people are asked if they are satisfied with the direction of society, about 70 percent say no, that everything is going to shit. Only a quarter or so say they’re satisfied.
But when the exact same polling service asks people if they’re satisfied with how their own lives are going, an astounding 85 percent of people say they are.
One could theorize, then, that we are in a world full of people who are getting along fairly well and even enjoying themselves much of the time. People who would decline an invitation to body-switch with another random person on earth (“I could wind up in Africa or something!”) or in history (“Before the internet? How did people even live?”), and thus recognize that they have it better than most. Yet they are continuously being bombarded by voices insisting they they could lose it all at any moment.
Why? Well, remember that on a biological level, anxiety exists for a reason. It’s supposed to motivate you to act. A cave person sees their food is running low, they feel anxiety about it, and that makes them to go kill a woolly mammoth. Then, as a reward, their anxiety subsides.
Modern mass media has figured out how to “hack” this instinct.
This isn’t a dark conspiracy, because there’s no unified goal here — they’re all pulling you in a different direction. Whether it’s triggering fear to make you click on their article or buy their newspaper …
… or triggering your guilt over consuming certain things (by cleverly implying theirs is “guilt-free”) …
Yarnell Ice Cream Co.
… or implying that you have been enlisted to fight a culture war, and that the battlefield is literally every mundane human interaction in your day-to-day life.
I Love Apparel
“ISIS hiding in your butcher shop!”
This chorus of voices will tell you that you should be devoting more time and energy to your career (by shaming you for being poor), but also that you should devote more time and energy to socializing (by shaming you for being a friendless virgin). They shame you for your weight, but then make it clear that all of the really cool people eat and drink with abandon. They mock your nerdy clothes and then scold you for being too obsessed with physical appearances.
They don’t want you to panic, oh no — panic would mean burning cars in the streets. They just want you to always be living with that low-level hum of anxiety at the edge of your senses, like a wasp buzzing around your ceiling 24 hours a day.
Your biology wasn’t built for that.
It’s killing you.
Thus, when people finally stumble across something that seems to alleviate their anxiety — namely, marijuana — they freaking worship that shit. They wear T-shirts and hats covered with cannabis leaves. They listen to songs singing its praises. That’s how badly they want the rats to stop gnawing on them.
There are people who willing choose to listen to Sublime. Think about that.
So what can you do?
Haha, wouldn’t it be amazing if I actually had a one-sentence cure for the plague of the industrialized world? The closest I could offer would be “Have you tried just not giving a shit?” but that won’t do. You have to give a certain number of shits just to stay alive. For every truly carefree person I know, there’s a nervous friend or family member who has to keep a “bail out my carefree friend” fund on hand for the next time that free spirit gets an eviction notice.
No, my plan is slightly more detailed, in that it has two parts instead of just the one:
1. Recognize that your attention is a limited resource which must be spent carefully … and that pushing yourself too hard can put you in the fucking ground.
2. Realize that a lot of the things clamoring for your attention are the equivalent of inbox spam.
That is, it’s junk mail sent by other people to trick you into feeling anxious in a way that will indirectly benefit them. The key is learning to filter it.
So if anxiety is intended to be a motivator for positive action, then you must only spend it on things that you can actually affect with action. Otherwise, it’s spam. Examples:
— You are made to feel ashamed about a personal attribute you have no control over (height, facial features, penis girth, race, gender, sexuality).
— You are upset because a person you are very nice to doesn’t enjoy your company (you have no power over others’ response to you).
— You feel a jolt of anger in your gut every time a religious/political/cultural group you find repulsive shows up in your news feed, upsetting you with their mere existence.
Now, if the thing you are having anxiety about is something you can affect with action but is someone else’s agenda, it’s also spam. Examples:
— Someone is trying to shame you over your job/partner/body, even though you yourself are happy with them.
— Someone is trying to shame you for the harmless hobbies you enjoy.
— Someone is trying to shame you because your life doesn’t look exactly like theirs.
You must learn to use the same technique taught in rehab and anger management classes: You have to stop, step outside of the emotion, and say, “I am feeling anxiety about this. Should I?”
If the answer is no, you can now deploy that psychological trump card known as Not Giving A Shit.
It’s not easy. It’s a skill you’ll have to practice for the rest of your life. Still, recognizing the need to do it is a massive step, since most of us accept anxiety as the background noise of everyday life (to the point where we actually get confused when it’s not there, the way city folk get freaked out by natural silence when they try to go camping). This technique requires you to regard your own peace of mind as a precious resource that is under continuous assault, and to reflexively defend it. A sort of martial art of the mind which involves strategically deploying or withholding your shit-giving as needed. I call it Noshitsu.
But be warned: Your enemies have been honing their techniques for a very long time. Still, with vigilance and repetition, I know for a fact that you, too, can become a Noshitsu master. Then, hopefully, you can come back and teach me.
David Wong is executive editor of Cracked and a New York Times bestselling author. His award-winning novel Futuristic Violence And Fancy Suits is available right here.
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