The Anxiety Epidemic

Feeling Anxious? Why?

In 2003, about three weeks after arriving in Guernsey from my previous life overseas, I picked up the Guernsey Press, and a large item on the front page read “man fined £75 for cycling on pavement”. I smiled to myself and shared the moment with my wife, agreeing that we had moved to the right place, and this was clearly a wonderful place to bring up children, to live happily and peacefully without anxiety or fear.

Over the intervening years I have watched those same headlines deteriorate in mood, with growing fears of financial ruin and starvation for all of us. I’ve also had the option of watching the news every morning with a background of large arrow pointing downwards, and the glum faces of BBC presenters placing their own value judgements on the news, and giving us a sense of grief and bereavement, with the loss of well known names in the high street retail sector disappearing off the planet. A sense of doom and gloom about it all seems to make life somewhat devoid of optimism and hope for the future. I no longer get the UK national papers, and nor do I watch TV news in the morning. I am not an economist, but to a simple soul like me it seems that economics is about keeping money moving around the system, passing from one person to another, and the only way to have that happen is if people have enough confidence to spend money, knowing they’ll be able to earn some more. In our house our main source of information about the economic situation is the aforementioned news, so we have decided not replace our six-year old television with a large flat screen. We have decided not to have that new carpet put down; instead we will just shampoo the old one and see how things go. We’ve held back from booking a summer holiday this year, and perhaps we’ll stay and enjoy the beaches in Guernsey, although headlines about sewage may make us anxious about that.

Our fears and worries about the future are also greatly fuelled by the prospect of a ‘black hole’ not being filled. To write this article I’ve had to swat up and read the definition of a black hole, which is an unproven phenomenon related to speeds and densities of large objects in space. Where I live in Guernsey we don’t have a black hole – what we do have is a potential budget deficit – not enough money to pay for the things we need unless our clever and astute politicians do something about it. I suspect they will do something about it, and I suspect that the island will survive very well. Of course, at the moment, we are relatively sheltered from the difficulties faced in the UK and much of the rest of the world. The “Global Economic Crisis” is something that affects us all, and I’m not pretending it doesn’t exist, but I’m not anxious about it. So life continues, but unfortunately it does so with a high degree of mental anguish, anxiety and fear for many people who are deeply affected by powerful metaphors such as ‘black hole’.

A client came to see me recently, deeply depressed. After some discussion, it became clear what external stressor had fuelled her anxiety. She had worked for the States of Guernsey all of her life, always reliant upon having a wonderful retirement with that very healthy pension that the States of Guernsey has always managed to supply. What had initially triggered this depressive episode was the news that her chances of getting a good healthy pension were fast diminishing due to the falling value of the pension fund, and the way in which this had been announced in the local media.

It all set me wondering about the question of cause and effect. What would happen if tomorrow all of the TV news stations, the UK National Press and our local media decided to start talking about possible economic recovery sooner than anticipated, and if there were headlines about the potential of improved trading conditions. I would not wish you to think that I am critical in any way of the people who run our news media, as on the whole, they are doing their jobs well. Having lived for a number of years in countries where there is no free press, I am very grateful that we have a critical, questioning and incisive Guernsey Press and local radio and TV. It is one of the great institutions of our island life, and long may it remain so.

In New York, after the difficulties they suffered in September 2001, a cover of Newsweek, or a similar publication on sale in Manhattan, had a man walking through Times Square, carrying a brief case and wearing a very sinister looking chemical protection suit, complete with gas mask. On the front cover was the question, “Is this the New York of the future?” By the time you got to page 37 you realised that the answer was, ‘no’ but the picture and the headline sold an awful lot of magazines. What it also undoubtedly did, was fuelled the sale of a lot of gas masks and chemical suits. I met many, many people in New York during the latter part of 2001 who had actually gone out and spent their hard-earned money on chemical suits because of their fears and anxieties for the future resulting from that article.

If you board any commercial flight these days, having run the gauntlet of being assumed to be a terrorist until you are searched, questioned and declared ‘clean’, you will be met by smiling cabin-crew letting you know that they have thought of every possible thing that could go wrong. They demonstrate what they will do, and what they will ask you to do, in the event of any of those anticipated disasters. You rehearse dreadful things going wrong. Immediately after that the pilot happily chimes in and says that we “expect” to land at our destination at the appointed hour. That expectation is the vitally important element in maintaining a low level of anxiety in our everyday lives.

To maintain my own emotional health, and to remain free of anxiety about the future, I choose to imagine that they have all got it wrong. The experts’ predictions, that the end is nigh, will turn out to be unrealistically pessimistic. Irresponsible lending will be consigned to the past, and within a few months the days will be brighter, the flowers will be out in Sausmarez Park, and the ‘black hole’ will have been filled in, replaced by a wonderful new phenomenon called ‘the warm glow’, a feeling given off by people who live without fear for the future. My morning cuppa will be interrupted by smiling newsreaders sat under an arrow which points upwards with the word ‘recovery’ typed boldly underneath.

Based at The Grove Clinic in St. Peter Port, John Halker is a qualified Psychotherapist and Clinical Hypnotherapist, using the Human Givens approach to help people change their minds. You can find out more about John and his work at www.grove-clinic.com and you will find much of interest at www.humangivens.com. In Guernsey call 01481 729911 or in London call 020 7193 2842.

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