The new angst

If anxiety is so common, why are we told to go through it alone?



K:Kuvat: Viivi Prokofjev

Translated by Kasper Salonen.

Last night I woke up at 4 a.m, sweating.

I was anxious because it was already Wednesday and I had unfinished work (where did Monday and Tuesday go?), I was anxious because I’m 30 and I have no idea what that’s supposed to mean, I was anxious because I couldn’t remember if I had a dentist’s appointment or if I’d missed it and now I’d get a bill and I’d have to wait another six months while my teeth rotted away, then I started thinking about Ville Valo’s teeth at the Emma Gala and I tried to imagine how Ville Valo is living these days and it made me anxious, I was anxious because I hadn’t answered a single email and I got worried that maybe I don’t pay enough attention to people, I remembered how earlier that day I saw a friend at a cafe and I said hi a little too late and didn’t stay to chat and I felt like I’d failed the social situation, I can’t just spontaneously go to a cafe since because of my anxiety I have to plan the whole thing beforehand because you never know who you’ll run into, and then I read a news article about a region in Sweden where next summer the mosquitos are going to slam through the air like a horrible horizontal blizzard right in people’s faces and the whole thought just made me biblically anxious.

I get anxious easily. I’ve gone through all sorts of phases of anxiety, for as long as I can remember.

Still, when I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder seven years ago, I felt like I was taking space from people who were ”actually sick”, unlike me. (Impostor syndrome about one’s own illness is probably par for the course for people with anxiety).

I’m not alone. Research shows that one in ten people in Finland suffers from generalized anxiety disroder. The figure is misleading, because other estimates say about 70 percent of those who match the diagnostic criteria don’t seek help. Anxiety hasn’t been classed as an illness until the 1980s, and about half of those suffering from anxiety also develop depression.

Most of the people I know have anxiety, many go to therapy or have been on medication for years. A friend of mine said they were constantly anxious that their own friends will abandon them and find new, cooler, and more successful friends instead. Another of my acquaintances once told me they had anxiety over not being able to exercise normally while they had the flu.

The January issue of young womens’ mag Trendi featured a lenthy article on how everyone should be in therapy, and how it’s kind of like going to the gym.

I don’t want to belittle the power of therapy and/or antidepressants. I know they have helped people, especially the lucky ones who have first made it through the gauntlet of the Social Insurance Institution (Kela) and the Student Health Service and other organizations, then found the right therapist and potentially a suitable drug combo, as well.

Taking responsibility for one’s own life can be frightening. It’s easier to hide behind excuses and blame one’s partner, children, busy lifestyle, boss, or even society itself. Everyone is responsible for their own happiness, a therapist is quoted in Trendi. The healthcare professional stares back from a black-and-white photograph with serious but hopeful facial expression.

But no human is completely alone, but is part of a network of other people and society at large. Anxiety isn’t some sudden emotional alien parasite that can just be removed as though vacuuming up a ball of dust. It is an affect that arises when a person faces reality. The reasons aren’t only in the individual’s unique personal history or relationships, but in how an anxious person’s life is constructed in relation to the surrounding world, which is constantly changing.

According to an analysis by the British collective, the Institute for Precarious Consciousness, each phase of capitalism is marked by its own ”dominant reactive affect” that everyone knows, but whose prevalence is effectively a public secret. In the 1960s, that feeling was boredom. Now, the dominant affect is anxiety.

Unlike fear, anxiety can rise without any concrete cause. Anxiety is like a school of piranhas that leaps to sharp-toothed action when potential subjects of worry find their way into the water. Unlike depression, anxiety does not paralyze us but keeps people in a certain state of alertness (to a point), ready to perform and analyze the emotional states of those around them.

It is possible to live with anxiety. Trembling hands and flop sweat can be curbed with the beta blocker Propral. But anxiety certainly isn’t good for your health (long-term anxiety predisposes people to cardiovascular diseases), and it is emotionally terrible in the long run. An anxious person curls inward and has trouble forming connections with other people.

Research has found that millennials, as those born between the 1980s and 2000s are so often dubbed, are the first generation to fare worse mentally than the age group before them. Under 30-year-olds are burning out at work. And the next generation isn’t doing much better in this respect; over the past twenty years, the number of 13-17-year-olds who have sought specialized psychiatric care has grown sevenfold in Finland.

In searching for the root causes of millennial anxiety, analyses often get stuck on a general lack of life management skills or the perils of technology. In an interview with daily Helsingin Sanomat, the new head of the National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL), Markku Tervahauta said outright that the increase in mental health problems is due to our living in a ”selfie world” where ”normal life is nothing” and the demand for success is sky-high. He spoke of ”social media fuss” and ”instant message lives”, suggesting face-to-face interaction and discussion as an antidote to the ultra-modern blues.

Constant anxiety can even be useful for people in jobs that require cerebral focus. It can push people to contribute a great deal of their time and energy even under strained circumstances.

Anxiety has to do with endless insecurity. I’ve compared freelance work to being a rat in a platformer game: you have to grab every chunk of cheese that comes your way, because you don’t know when the next one will come along.

The result is the non-stop complaint of ”too much work”. But in the next moment there may actually be too little, with no certainty as to how things will be in a year or even a month or two.

When the topic of precarious employment is raised in Finland, a general feeling seems to be that the problem gets blown out of proportion, because the number of unorthodox contracts has increased relatively little among 20-29-year-olds. At the same time, however, part-time gigs, freelance projects, and competition over employment are all on the rise.

According to a survey by the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment from 2017, the amount of self-employed people in Finland has steadily increased in recent years, by about 37,000 individuals in the last 15 years. Ministry estimates also see freelance work becoming even more common in the future.

Meanwhile, the nature of work in so-called ”typical” jobs is also becoming more project-oriented. Calls for applications want jobseekers to be ”entrepreneurial” – that is, passionate, flexible, dedicated, and self-managing. Precariousness doesn’t only refer to the length of contracts signed; it represents an existential uncertainty that makes the status quo so exhausting that planning for one’s own future or even imagining it can be too tall an order.

Paradoxically, the government’s simultaneous education budget cuts ensure that students are expected to make precisely accurate decisions about their lives, to choose the ”right industry” as young as possible and to graduate quickly and effectively instead of hanging around the halls of academia.

If millennials are self-centered, anxious, depressed, lazy, career-oriented, addicted to social media, unwilling to work boring jobs or answer their phones or cook food or have sex or have kids, it’s not because they are this way from birth. That’s the stance writer Malcolm Harris takes in his 2018 book, Kids These Days, an in-depth analysis on the life and times of millennials. Millennials are the way they are because the social system that their predecessors built has made them that way.

That system may be called late capitalism or cognitive capitalism, which researcher Jussi Vähämäki describes as a form of capitalistic congestion where people’s general intellect is the subject of economic accumulation. Cognitive capitalism is interested in the intellect, emotions, attitudes, identities, and the abilities of the mind to adapt to different situations.

A good employee doesn’t need an outside ”boss”, because they demand so much of themselves already. ”Don’t stop when you’re tired. Stop when you’re done”, reads the slogan on the blender in the kitchen of American workspace company WeWork. Workers encourage themselves to exceed their own limits and attain some kind of ”worker’s high”, as if dealing with a competitive sport.

Harris writes that labor has become ”feminized”. He does not refer to a feminist emancipation, but to labor where emotional sensitivity is emphasized and employees are prepared to be flexible and to undercut the monetary worth of their own work. The markets do not simply sell labor, but ”unlimited potential”.

These demands to succeed and love one’s job don’t come from the ”social media world” but from individuals themselves who have internalized the demands of cognitive capitalism.

Under cognitive capitalism, our most personal attributes, our very humanity, can be used to turn a profit. The well-known feminist quotation, ”the personal is political”, could be rephrased: ”the personal is professional”.

For instance, if Instagram causes anxiety among its users, it’s because of a mechanism that forces those users to work for the platform for free in the hope of such use prompting actual opportunities for work, love, or friendship in the long run. Its metrics clearly show who is more and who is less popular. People start to compare their own accomplishments to those of others in spite of themselves. No wonder so many of us are anxious.

On the other hand, social media can’t be boiled down to mere value production, although it is that, too. The same platforms that are used to find jobs are also used to express oneself, stay in contact with friends, and just have a good time. When a micro-influencer posts a touching update about their panic attacks on Instagram, it is an act of self-branding as an authentic and humanly imperfect knowledge worker – while the added value trickles over to the owners, and perhaps even provides the micro-influencer with a decent little content partnership with a wellness company that provides floatation tank services. Nevertheless, the status update is also about communication, and a sincere intention to lift the stigma surrounding mental health.

The above-mentioned analysis by the Institute of Precarious Consciousness holds that each phase of capitalism comes to an end when it is able to assimilate all resistance.

In the 1960s, the situationists rebelled against boredom by turning down mind-numbing dea-dend jobs and morphing their lives into an exuberant adventure through their performances. Capitalism was able to commodify that anti-boredom revolution as the entertainment industry and smart devices. Boredom isn’t a problem anymore, or at least it has changed. There are too many ubiquitous stimuli, which causes anxiety, an obsessive mixture of overexcitement and apathy which causes increasingly many to dream of offline peace and quiet.

How can anxiety be alleviated?

Even though anxiety is a shared experience, it is usually considered and treated as a private problem.

The whole January issue of Trendi magazine is pure anxiety and burnouts, shifting from one crisis to another in cuddly soft organic wool clothing.

In one of the magazine’s articles, entrepreneur and burnout survivor Annastiina Hintsa recounts how she contructed a five-password blockade for her Facebook account due to her phone addiction, to make signing on as hard as possible. She says that after she crashed, she learned to not skip lunch more than twice a week. Self care tends to get curtailed into little everyday habits such as these that can supposedly be used to keep anxiety in check and the burnout demon at bay.

Another Trendi story encourages readers to take care of themselves with some light exercise, and if you’re too busy to meditate, you can always buy a meditation pillow for just 39 euros. The existence of such a product may push some people to take the time to care for themselves, which a lovely five-star productivity app also reminds users to do.

The magazine’s ethos fits in well in the age of accelerating climate change, where consumption has to be redefined and repackaged so that capitalism can continue to validate itself. Shopping is becoming tacky; a completely beat urban consumer instead invests in their ”mind-body-complex” and their ”spiritual values”.

The mental health tales in women’s mags and Helsingin Sanomat help alleviate the stigma surrounding the topic, and make it easier for some people to seek help. Everyone should certainly learn to care for themselves and talk about their problems. Readers who scoff at self care and emotional stories end up dismissing survival methods framed as feminine that could be among the only things holding some anxious souls together.

But there are so many accounts by successful go-getters of how they crashed and burned before climbing back up that some people refer to the genre as ”burn out porn”, a style of honesty that leaves a majority of the population feeling like complete outsiders.

”Adversity can be framed as a story of growth, a win that is like another notch on someone’s CV, proving how well they can take care of themselves,” literary scholar Taija Roiha says. If cognitive capitalism can cover all types of knowing and doing and produce added value through them, it has already succeeded with anxiety and burnouts. No wonder that self-help is such a massive business and a source of obsession for consumers everywhere.

If anxiety is shared, couldn’t we fight it together? Many radical thinkers have spoken in favor of collective action and friendship as forces for positive change. Friendship brings joy, and alleviates anxiety, but it is unpredictable, too. I’d like to say something encouraging about collective action and camaraderie, but I don’t know what that might be.

When I’ve finished this essay, I’m going to take a shower. It helps with anxiety to be able to organize a moment to shower once a day. Or thats the self-care advice I’ve read. I can’t go out among people if I haven’t showered.

Also showering is productive. You can get a lot of new ideas in the shower

My new soap smells like Bulgarian rose.