Socially acceptable anxiety is still anxiety
Why is it fine to worry?
When I feel stressed about getting a job as a professor, I count up all my papers and papers-to-be in my head. One, two, three, four, five, six. “Maybe I’ll be okay,” I think. “Just gotta keep working.” And then, instead of working, I start counting again. One, two, three—
When I’m around people I don’t know well, I worry a lot about going to the bathroom at the right time. Telling an acquaintance than you gotta wiz? Impossible. Much better to obsessively control your fluid intake so that you only have to pee at opportune times. “Oh, a bathroom? I couldn’t possibly, I’m not some monster who has to urinate every few hours…well, if you insist!"
When I take a little too long to respond to an email or a text, I start to worry I’ve offended the other person, so instead of simply replying with an apology, I put off responding even longer. This cycle continues until the only way out is to fake my own death.
The same emotion lurks underneath all of these behaviors, and I think a good word for it is anxiety. The hallmark of anxiety is worry without results: I don’t increase my publications by counting them, I don't make my interactions less awkward by fretting about my bladder, nor do I improve my email etiquette by avoiding my inbox.
It's no surprise that I feel this way; I got those hot-n-poppin’ anxious genes, passed down from both sides, directing every neuron in my brain to pump out worry-juice at full blast. What’s surprising is that nobody finds my anxious tendencies at all concerning. If you tell people that you manage your stress by tossing back a couple bourbons, or crying in bed all day, or pulling the wings off of flies, they get a little worried. But when you tell them that you manage your stress by thinking the same useless thoughts over and over again, hundreds of times a day, feeling very bad the whole time, they go “oh yeah, me too."
I think this is really, really strange. We live in societies that draw a line between things that are Fine and things that are Not Fine. Most things that hurt yourself or others are Not Fine, like popping someone in the mouth, setting off fireworks in the cafeteria, or smoking doobies while going 70mph down the freeway. But wringing your hands raw? That is Fine.
In fact, many activities that we tolerate or even celebrate are, in fact, socially acceptable anxiety. For example:
A SHORT LIST OF SOCIALLY ACCEPTABLE ANXIETIES
People have a bunch of false fears about conversation jangling around in their heads, like “nobody likes me” and “nobody wants to talk to me” and “nobody wants to talk about deep stuff” and “it’ll be awkward if I reach out to someone who needs help”. But when they actually strike up a conversation, none of that turns out to be true, and, in fact, people feel great. When you pretend to be really interested in the wallpaper instead of talking to someone new at a party, that is socially acceptable anxiety.
Checking how your post is doing
It’s a 21st-century ritual: you post something on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, wherever, and then you keep refreshing your feed to see if anybody has liked it. Smash that “notifications” button. Pull down on your timeline, release. (Facebook has found the perfect sound effects for this. Fwip! Pop!) Keep checking to see whether you’re popular or a pariah. (“If a post doesn’t get more than 16 likes, delete it,” a savvy friend once told me.) That is socially acceptable anxiety.
Imagining nuclear apocalypse
It would be really bad if nuclear war happened. I, for one, would be totally against it. But unless you, personally, are the guy with the nuclear football, or you’re that guy’s boss, you have no power over this. You might as well worry that bunch a demons are going to burst into your house, drag you out into the street, beat you to death, and then blast you to hell (you know, like this). We unfortunately live in a world where a few people have the power to kill everybody, and unless you’re building a backyard bunker, whenever you waste an hour on Nukemap simulating the deaths of everyone you love, that is socially acceptable anxiety.
Making AI timelines
There’s a corner of the internet where people try to figure out how much time we have left before computers come to life and kill us all.
Okay, that’s not exactly fair. They think a lot of different things could happen when machines achieve superintelligence. But many of those things are very bad. So they do what everybody does when faced with the end of the world: they argue about whether it will happen very soon, or moderately soon. That is socially acceptable anxiety.
The great American pastime is not baseball; it’s worrying about who the next president will be. Each season lasts three years and nine months, and traditionally there’s a three-month break between the election itself and the subsequent inauguration, although recently we’ve figured out how to fill even that time worrying about whether the outgoing president will leave office peacefully.
During presidential worry season, it’s fine to obsess over every dramatic development, like “Biden Forgets Word for ‘Boats’, Calls Them ‘Water-Zoomers’” or “Trump Wants to Force Prisoners to Jump Up and Down on San Andreas Fault to Cause California Earthquake.” You’re allowed to lose sleep refreshing FiveThirtyEight to see whether the polls have budged a tenth of a percent. You can doom-google “how to move to Canada” all you want. In fact, doing all of this can make you seem well-informed—how quickly the connotation of “junkie” changes when you put “political” in front of it.
Of course, all of this worry is for nothing. Anyone who follows politics already knows who they’re voting for; nothing will change their minds. The fate of the free world will be decided by 5,000 people in Pennsylvania who will only remember to vote when the Domino’s app on their phone offers them $2 off a medium two-topping pizza if they send in a selfie with their “I voted” sticker. They’ll show up to the polls undecided, casting their vote based on half-remembering something like “Republicans want to resettle illegal immigrants on the moon” or “Democrats want to pass a bill saying that the Statue of Liberty is bi.” This is how our political system works, and you will not change it by reading a bunch of articles about who has the better “ground game.” That is socially acceptable anxiety.
(In fact, I think most news consumptions is simply socially acceptable anxiety, which is why I think reading the news is the new smoking.)
WHY WE THINK IT’S FINE TO WORRY
Why, out of all the negative emotions, is anxiety uniquely socially acceptable? I think there are lots of reasons; here are five important ones.
One: we’re all pretty anxious, and it’s hard to judge others for feeling the same way. We are the descendants of neurotic survivors, humans who worried that the shadow in the grass might be a tiger, that their winter stash of nuts and roots might run out, that they might get kicked out of the tribe for being too annoying. They worried, they lived, they had kids, and now we’re here, equally anxious in a world that’s much less dangerous.
Two: it’s easy to mistake worrying about a problem for solving a problem. Being anxious about climate change, for example, almost looks like doing something about climate change. Of course, you don't remove carbon from the atmosphere by reading articles and going “ah jeez,” and “oh no,” and “yikes.”
Three: we overestimate the size of our problems, which makes worrying about them seem reasonable. For instance, people think they’ll be euphoric if their candidate wins an election, and despondent if their candidate loses. And they’re right—but they underestimate how quickly they’ll feel normal again. If you don’t understand that, everything seems scarier than it turns out to be, and worrying seems more sensible than it really is.
(If you voted for Biden, how long did your post-election elation last before you started worrying that Trump might not accept the outcome, that he might run again, that his supporters would overthrow democracy, that Democrats would totally blow their shot at running the government, and so on, forever? Me, I had a wonderful 36 hours before I went back to my everyday dread.)
Four: unlike other negative emotions, anxiety is quite compatible with being a productive member of society. Sad people don’t show up for work, and we can’t have that. Angry people break things, and we can’t have that. But anxious people might work harder.
And five: telling people not to worry sounds like telling them not to care. It matters a lot who the president is, or whether computers turn us into paperclips, or whether we all get vaporized in a nuclear blast. If you suggest that perhaps people should shed their illusion of control about these things, you look like a wacko who wants an evil AI to take over the world, paperclip us, and then nuke us.
WHAT SHOULD WE DO ABOUT IT?
I don’t think we’re sitting on an easy cure for anxiety. And I don’t think we should stigmatize people for feeling anxious; that’s like tossing an arachnophobe into a vat of spiders. But we collectively draw the line between Fine and Not Fine, which means we can all nudge anxiety toward Not Fine.
One way to do that is to, as some psychiatrists suggest, treat anxiety like an addiction. We worry for the same reason we turn to pills and booze: we falsely assume it’s easier than dealing with reality. And when you see someone you love trying to drown their problems with alcohol, you don’t pour them another shot. You might try to help them find a more productive outlet for their emotions. If it was really bad, you might encourage them to go to therapy or AA. You can’t change them, and you can’t change the world that drove them to drink. But you can offer them empathy, and at the very least, you can refuse to enable them. We can do the same with anxiety.
I know what a difference that can make to someone addicted to worrying, because I’ve been that someone. In the fall of 2020, I started feeling really miserable. I thought I might be depressed, so I called my friend Clayton, who wrote a one-man show about depression, which I guess makes him an expert. I described how I kept thinking about my own sadness all day, trying to figure out where it came from and how I could stop it.
“I am not a mental health professional,” Clayton said dutifully. “But I recognize that feeling, that if you can just figure something out, all the bad feelings will go away. I felt the exact same way. I was wrong, and I think you’re wrong too. You are not going to think yourself out of this.”
“No, no, I’m pretty sure I just need to think myself out of this,” I replied. "Maybe I’m sad because of the pandemic, or because I’m uncertain about the future, or because the improv theater shut down and I don’t get to perform anymore.”
“Uh huh,” Clayton said, unimpressed. “Well, when you let go of the idea that one big insight is going to make you feel good again and you’re ready to start the long-term work you’ll have to do, call me back."
At the time, I was annoyed that Clayton wouldn’t join me in my thought loops. Some friend! But after I thought myself into deeper sadness, started seeing a therapist, and realized how anxious and unproductive my thoughts had been, I came to feel grateful for Clayton’s reaction. I had been chugging bottles of liquid worry, and the first thing I needed was someone to tell me, “Hey, that doesn’t seem to be helping.”
I’d like to live in a world where we offer that to one another. A world where it’s fine to feel fear, but not to live in it. Sometimes bad things happen, and bad things might happen at any time. That’s scary, but we can't think ourselves out of it, and we shouldn’t let each other pretend that we can.
So, are you afraid? Me too—I’m the guy who can’t muster the courage to tell someone when he’s gotta pee. I regret to inform you that our fears will only grow unless we face them; unfortunately, we must be brave. But it’s easier to be courageous when you have company. So if you’ll be brave, I will too. In just a second, I’ll be right back.