Rethinking anxiety

Emma .jpg

"By labelling someone with an anxiety disorder, we see them as  an individual with a disease. We ignore how the failings of late capitalism can make people miserable," says social work lecturer Emma Tseris.

She spoke to Clear Spot Club President Jackie Dent.

How does a social work lecturer come to take an interest in anxiety?

In social work, there is a real interest in thinking beyond 'the person is the problem'. In my work, I see more and more people being diagnosed with anxiety so I became interested in exploring how we can understand this trend - this apparent epidemic of anxiety - in terms of broader social and political patterns. 

 

 

What research are you doing?

I interview people who have received mental health support and I explore their experiences from a first-person perspective. What I have found is that mental health services are often ill-equipped to explore social situations. There is a very strong focus on mental illness diagnosis and seeing distress as a purely medical condition, which prevents a broader analysis of what is going on in a person's life. 

In your view, why do people get anxious?

There are so many reasons. The most common explanation focuses on genetic inheritance or chemical imbalances. Another dominant approach is a psychological one - we need to change our thinking or develop better coping strategies. While there is certainly space for such analyses, important aspects of our social world often go unexplored. Unrelenting demands in our work and personal lives, discrimination and ongoing social inequalities can all lead to the experience of anxiety. 

By labelling someone with an anxiety disorder, we see them as  an individual with a disease. We ignore how the failings of late capitalism can make people miserable.

Why do we only look at anxiety through a psychological lens?

We are living in times where psychological explanations are of interest not only in academic and clinical settings, but in our everyday lives. We think about ourselves and each other in terms of what is happening in our minds and brains. Many of us are actively trying to improve our mental health and wellbeing.  This can be useful and empowering.

However, frequently the causes of our distress are outside of our immediate control— precarious or stressful employment, social isolation, living with racism, for example. In these cases, it can be unrealistic for us to manage our distress through techniques like changing our thinking, or mindfulness, for example. Something bigger has to change. 

Isn't this an unrealistic goal?

No, I don't think so. Sometimes relatively small changes can make a big difference. Think of a heterosexual couple who hold a belief that parenting is entirely a responsibility for the female partner. She is now feeling overwhelmed in that role. A shift in responsibilities between the partners has the potential to significantly reduce her distress. Of course, I have hopes about broader social change too!

What is the latest in critical thinking when it comes to anxiety?

Critical theorists have examined how as a society, we seem to have less and less tolerance for difference.  The result is that previously acceptable personality traits, such as shyness or introversion are now understood as a sign of an anxiety disorder. Christopher Lane's book, 'Shyness: How Normal Behaviour Became a Sickness' is an example of scholarship in this area. By labelling someone with an anxiety disorder, we see them as  an individual with a disease. We ignore how the failings of late capitalism can make people miserable.

You've said in the past anxiety can be useful. How so?

I don't wish to deny the incredibly painful experience of anxiety.  However, anxiety can also be useful information. It's our body responding to fear and danger. It's a signal that something is not right. In this way, it can serve as an impetus for change, or it can actually protect us in the midst of very difficult situations. 

 

What would you like to see happening with anxiety? 

I think we can use different words to describe the anxiety experience. Words like 'despair', 'fear' and 'overwhelm' may help us think about the problem as one beyond the individual person or as an illness. This might help us to think more clearly about the causes of our distress, which often stem from our circumstances.  With new language, we can think more creatively about alternative responses that might work, beyond a 'fixing the individual' approach. 

Emma, a social work lecturer at the University of Sydney, will be speaking alongside philosopher Peter Banki and sociologist Michael Pusey at the "Alt" causes of anxiety event on May 4.  She has a piece coming out in the forthcoming collection Routledge International Handbook of Critical Mental Health.