America’s Anxiety About Anxiety: a Q&A With Dr. Rebecca Lester

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Performance anxiety, writer’s block, imposter syndrome, chronic stress. Social anxiety, attachment anxiety, existential anxiety, FOMO. Climate anxiety, tech anxiety, conspiracy theories, xenophobia. Overachievement, perfectionism, avoidance, hoarding. Hypochondria, insomnia, fear of aging, denial of death.

We are a bundle.

Spidery, creeping, impossible to ignore, anxiety spins uncertainties that cling no matter how frantically we brush them away. All the mindfulness workbooks in the world will not settle us down. And the prevalence is increasing: I see that glazed, jittered look in strangers’ eyes and recognize it instantly. My mom was anxious her whole life, in ways that today would be diagnosed “generalized.” She just scrubbed floors, smoked cigarettes, played a hard tennis game, and talked it out.

For her, I wish there had been treatment. For this societal contagion, though, I am beginning to think that instead of deciding that we are all mentally unwell, we need a resistance movement.

Dr. Rebecca Lester is a professor of anthropology here at Washington University; she focuses on medicine and psychology and is also a clinical psychotherapist. She is part of a team of scholars exploring different facets of anxiety—especially “the ways people feel compelled to find certainty in the midst of uncertainty.” And she is loath to pathologize it.


So you don’t think we’re more of a wreck than any society in human history?

I don’t know that there’s more anxiety than there has been before. We are more aware of it. We have more language around it. And we have this expectation that we should not be anxious.

Yeah, at least the Puritans and Calvinists worked it into their worldview. As an anthropologist, how much variation do you see in anxiety across cultures?

What makes people anxious will be different. Life history, temperament, your position in the societal structure, and the culture around you will all affect anxiety. And how people respond to anxiety is also cultural.

Have there been times of more intense anxiety? I think of the late nineteenth-century Age of Anxiety and its “neurasthenia”….

Whenever there’s a period of rapid change, structures get destabilized. That can cause a lot of discomfort.

Are there way to, if not pathologize it, at least ease it?

One thing we can do is get more comfortable with uncertainty and change. The world is about change. The idea that we can fix it in place somehow is an illusion. But Americans, especially, tend to think we can make the world into whatever we want it to be.

How does a general mood of anxiety affect us, societally?

We see a more pronounced “othering” of people, a search for the source of this anxiety and an attempt to regulate things that make people nervous. Like which bathroom someone can use. There is a clamping down. Some of the positive consequences we saw elements of during the worst parts of COVID, with people building different kinds of community, reaching toward each other instead of turning against each other. But [a rueful shrug] I think that’s less common.

How does anxiety affect us individually?

It varies, but there can be a kind of insularity: making your world smaller, so it’s something you can manage. Rigidity, fixed routines, not being very flexible—all of which work against community. People live a lot in their heads. There’s a hypervigilance. They act out of fear.

How do we avoid that?

One way is calming your nervous system with breathing and body postures. We understand more about the brain now. The amygdala gets really activated by anxiety, and our sympathetic nervous system gets deregulated. People’s bodies are ready to act, muscles tensed, but fear and indecision are stopping the action.

I’ve read that sometimes we take our cue from our body—if our heart is racing, for example, we assume there must be cause for fear.

Yeah, even after twenty years, I still feel anxious before giving a lecture. I’ve learned to ask myself what makes me think I’m anxious. Well, my heart rate is elevated, I feel kind of tense, and my mind is going over and over what I’m going to say. So I try to reframe that—is it necessarily anxiety, or am I excited? Even infatuation can feel like anxiety!

What do you find yourself telling your clients?

That fear is not fact. Sometimes our fear is accurate, but not always. And it takes us out of living in the present moment. Anxiety is definitely part of the common language now. I hear my teenager and her friends talk about climate anxiety. We talk about how sleep-deprived, overworked, and stressed we are, and that can be true, but there’s also cultural currency to it. What are people communicating when they’re talking about how stressed they are? That they need something and don’t know how to ask for it?

Or that they’re doing work so Important, they’re willing to sacrifice their health for it? Or they’re trying to get permission in advance in case they screw up? We’ve made stress and anxiety into cultural norms, awful and desirable at once, and readily contagious. I wonder: is it easier for us to get whipped into anxiety or calmed by another person?

My sense is that it’s easier for us to be ratcheted up. We can all feel it when we’re around someone who has very calming energy, but it’s not as noticeable.

Maybe because all they’re doing is soothing us, while the person making us anxious goes straight to the root of our anxiety? Which might be what?

Comparison is a source of anxiety. Being evaluated or judged. Uncertainty, unpredictability. Vulnerability. Ambiguity. Failure. The sense that there is a zero-sum game: if I don’t get it, someone else will, and I won’t have anything—whether that’s love or money or opportunity.

Or toilet paper. That was a rational fear, during lockdown. But where does this larger sense of scarcity come from?

Capitalism is part of it—there are winners and losers. But it goes beyond that. Just plain fear can be a source of anxiety.

So we’re caught in a loop, because even anxiety can make us anxious?



Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.