by Liam Hawkes

There’s something about the nature of anxiety which makes it a distinctly personal, solitary thing. Anxiety in its many forms is an insidious creature which so easily permeates even the most confident of personalities. We can see in the press about the terrible nature of mental health care in the UK at the moment, and the pledges towards the improvement of the system. When we see that 75% of people receive no help with their disorders, or on average people wait for up to 10 years before treating their anxiety. Is it not time to think a little more deeply about our own experiences and whether they are translatable?

Things change, people change, and anxiety is a coping mechanism. It is a method of mourning for past experiences or uncertainty future events. Existentially speaking, it is inescapable. It is the acute awareness of one’s own mortality. In this sense then, existential anxiety and anxiety in general seems to exist for a perfectly understandable reason. However, the debilitating nature of the disorder can sometimes be so intense that it cannot be expressed. And does this suggest something which is not inherently social about the experience? Which could perhaps make it untranslatable.

By confronting my own insecurities, my own anxieties and my own misgivings about the topic I want to create a structure which allows me to understand my own experience using ideas borrowed from philosophy. However, this had lead to me believe that anxiety disorders are exclusively untranslatable phenomena. But when 1 in 6 young adults suffer from some sort of anxiety disorder, it makes me question why its so difficult to translate to another person, and why it still lies behind so many people’s social lives.

If we can philosophically think of anxiety as a reaction to the social and cultural conditions of how we live, I think this can contribute some what to a more complete understanding of the disorder.

Anxiety is something that has developed in its essence as something subjective and personal. If we can philosophically think of anxiety as a reaction to the social and cultural conditions of how we live, I think this can contribute some what to a more complete understanding of the disorder. This is because we are all very much implanted in the social, cultural, and historical conditions of the societies we live in. Something which shapes and moulds the understanding of the self we adopt. So in this sense then I see anxiety in it’s broadest form as arriving from two necessary but not mutually exclusive aspects of consciousness.

Initially, as I have suggested, it arises from the social structure which surrounds us. This does not only shape us passively, it actively imposes norms and levels of normality which we measure ourselves up against. This is an idea that Foucault strongly advocated, and something which seems to make perfect sense to me. Each of us governs ourselves from the side. We look to those you stand by our side, see how they behave, see how they present themselves and we change our own selves in accordance which a widely accepted but internally regulated function. The function of normalising. Now, I could delve into the social power relations which create exert this kind of normalising function, but I don’t feel it necessary to my argument to explore this too much. Instead it is much more beneficial to simply understand that there is an external influence of expectation and conformity which makes up one side of the fundamental cause of anxiety.


The second, and trickier counterpart to this, is the idea of internal expectation, aspirations, social ability and perception of one’s self. This is something which is born in the minds of each of us but remains the thing which individualises our experience of anxiety. Something which to me can distinguish between the experience fromm becoming a nuisance, to a debilitating disorder. It comes down to what was mentioned before about the type of person you are (influenced by the external influences) and how this has shaped your view of yourself and your life. I think of this as being a product of the initial category, which could be presented as coming prior to this, but also being distinguished in its own right as something which effects thoughts personally and something we have (arguably) a certain degree of control over. I say arguably because I am fully aware from my own experience and that from others that when anxiety becomes a disorder, it becomes debilitating and the aspect of control over ones thought is impossible. But this internal aspect of the anxious person acts as internal process of continual questioning, doubting of decisions, thoughts one has. This begins to act in an autonomous way, of its own accord on the everyday perception and experience of the individual. This is when it can become debilitating.

 It’s not something which should be Stoically passed off as something that teenagers and “emos” go through.

It’s hard for each of us to empathise or sympathise with any other person’s mode of thinking. It’s hard for us to implement ways of changing the discourse around mental illness and anxiety, but its not impossible. It’s not something which should be Stoically passed off as something that teenagers and “emos” go through. I think that everyone should try and break down their own experience of anxiety, because its inescapable that everyone has experienced it in one form or another. This seems to be a recurring theme of things I write, but in order to understand the human experience in general, I think the only way is understanding confidently our own experience. That includes facing up the anxiety we all feel at some point, in the face of a society which constantly tells us we aren’t good enough.

So, anxiety isn’t the monster under our bed, or the skeleton in our closest. It is part of the condition that is human, social life. Perhaps thinking of it in this way will move us towards and acceptance of the anxiety felt by others and ourselves. But perhaps this reconciliation with the disorder doesn’t result in being able to effectively translate it.

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