The pressure to go ‘all-in’ to conform is fuelling anxiety

Why are so many of us so anxious? At first sight it seems a rhetorical question, after all we are living in seemingly one of the most turbulent times in modern history: In the UK Brexit created the type of knife-edge mentality that tore friends and family members apart. For many people this ignited a level of personal emotion and tension that disrupted their normal lives. Brits got to the point when they could no longer watch the news, or talk about the subject and you could cut the background tension with a knife.

Brexit was followed, in a perfect storm, by coronavirus, which has left some people shattered emotionally. Of course, given such a historic and monumental event, it would be ridiculous to not be affected by the ongoing story, yet I feel the emotional reaction to major events is underpinned by a more insidious trend of adult insecurity and sense of ‘lostness’. Major causes and movements that have appeared: from MAGA to Black Lives Matter provide a focus and conduit for pent up feelings of frustration about life in general, in what I call ‘reaction hysteria’.

This has not appeared in a vacuum. As communication changed from face to face to online, most people’s anxiety developed around simpler themes: how they looked, what they ate, the perceived safety on the streets and keeping up with others. What used to be an adolescent insecurity has spread to the adult world, driven by social media.  In the absence of the certainty and boundaries and authority that existed in the past, the vacuum has been filled by loud voices and self-promotion; accompanied by the constant erosion of balance and context. Adulthood has been delayed so young people remain in a maturity-repressed state, in which they are highly susceptible to ‘groupthink’. The reliance on external validation creates a susceptibility to internalised stress and insecurity.

Reactions to events are exaggerated and distorted and they become very dependent upon identity politics: people are terrified to return to normal life or desperate to be part of mass movements: climate revolution, protests against lockdown during coronavirus or the outcry over the death of George Floyd, for example. Of course, some of the mass movements we have seen recently (pro-environmentalism, MeToo or BlackLivesMatter for example) represent a stand against injustice that is long overdue. What concerns me is the anxiety, emotion and blind judgement associated with change events today. These issues are complex and my experience as a BAME woman includes intolerance from people who claim to be tolerant and on the ‘right side’ of history.

What about people who question the conflation of issues or the virtue-signalling? Ultimately, it is less stressful to conform, so we end up with an increasingly homogenised set of expectations with little debate and dislike of people who stray from the message. The message tends to be one of ‘with us or against us’ and, feeling morally justified appears to excuse hatred and discrimination towards ‘the other side’ which includes many people alienated by the personalities and behaviours involved.

The effort to assimilate what is acceptable to think and how to behave and the effort to maintain one’s distance from homogenised thinking are both stressful. In this way everyone lives with heightened anxiety. We need to reintroduce balance and respect of alternative opinions before it is too late.