What happens in the world affects the way we feel.
I’ve seen a significant uptick in clients reporting emotional distress and existential anxiety in response to growing fears that global warming, domestic terrorism, and ruptures in our post-WWII alliances signal an emerging sociopolitical instability. These are not issues that I’m looking for. They’re offered freely when I inquire about what causes them to seek help at this time.
My practice as a psychologist serves professional people, well-educated and ambitious. As individuals and couples, they often impose a great deal of pressure on themselves. They aim high, work hard, and can be intensely self-critical when they fall short. Neurotic? Yes, their mental and motivational orientation does generate anxiety, perfectionism, and overwork that can sap the joy from their lives.
Even among those who are hardy and resilient, mounting stress, strain, and fatigue spawns an intensity of mental focus, feelings of urgency, and decompensation in coping resources. Trying harder may work for a while, but it’s hardly ever sustainable. After they’ve depleted their personal resources and perhaps driven intimate others and colleagues “nuts,” they enter my office seeking help.
Loss and the Role of Social Support
These more socially embedded issues can seem beyond our reach. It’s this frustration that people mean to express when they compare the macro level of change to dealing with “world hunger.” If this is not to be a dismissive reference, however, it must evoke a shift in perspective that inquires after what we can do, what is within our reach, no matter how incremental or symbolic.
We’ve begun seeing evidence that corporate America is recognizing this widespread anxiety and the need to do something to acknowledge it and give society hope. They’ve taken action on issues of gun violence and global warming. When these public positions are asserted as acts of social responsibility, they give us reason for hope. After all, we live in market-based economies that usually resist government action.
There may be other actions and affiliations we as individuals can pursue to reinforce these efforts in our own communities. When Adam Smith made his comments about how self-interest motivates productive economic behavior, he also recognized that ethics and responsibility for common interests are sparked by non-economic motives, i.e., by moral “sentiments” or emotions such as sympathy.
That’s part of the reason we see people seeking solidarity around value-based concerns for the public good, e.g., Mothers Against Drunk Driving and Doctors Without Borders. People from diverse religious and political affiliations find common cause in pursuing such common interests. Not only is there practical value in such action, it provides us with a sense of potency.
Anxiety and depression share a common feature. It’s the loss of our internal locus of control. Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness grow when see no options to act on what are inherently practical matters with harmful effects. As persons we feel less free, our social lives feel less democratic. But seeing that our companies can do something, perhaps we can be heartened to do something too.
Making Our Lives Better
As couples, as families, as work groups or social action groups, we always remain free to take action. And even before taking action, we have the opportunity (and responsibility) to talk about what we’re feeling and experiencing. It’s important to gain insight into what’s really at the root of our concerns. If all we come up with is anger or resentment, we’re not done getting to the core of our concerns.
Taking social action out of anger usually implies acting out of ignorance, even willful ignorance. It is acting out of positive motivations, life-affirming, adaptive modes of social responsibility that restores our internal locus of control and helps assuage feelings of anxiety and depression. These are ways of making our lives better. Done properly, we’ll feel more hope, less alienation. So find a way to act!