How Anxiety Influences Politics (and keeps us from solving problems)

Perhaps the simplest definition of anxiety is fear. And when we perceive a threat, our thinking, behaviors, and relationships are transformed. A good chunk of politics is focused on telling us what we should be terrified about. It’s no secret that fear-based messages get higher ratings and are more likely to be shared on social media.  

There are plenty of real problems that people should fear. And some people have to fear problems that others have the privilege of not worrying about. But if we’re not careful, fear can distort and disconnect anyone from reality. This is exactly why I worry more about dying in plane crash than dying of heart disease.

It can be useful to think about how political anxiety impacts our functioning, and keeps us from helping with complex societal problems. And it’s no surprise that the politics of an anxious society resembles the functioning in an anxious family.

Dial up the anxiety, and people start to:

  • Become increasingly suspicious.
  • Feel more sensitive when others disagree.
  • Provoke people to get a reaction.
  • Block out information that challenges their view.
  • Discard their beliefs to please the group.
  • Act helpless.
  • Label one person as the problem.
  • Alternate between attacking and avoiding problems.
  • View problems as more simplistic than they actually are.

In other words, AMERICA. (And many other countries I’m sure.) All of these behaviors are attempts to manage the anxiety, but they seldom reflect our best thinking.

Looking at politics through the lens of anxiety (and Bowen theory) has been tremendously helpful to me. On a good day (which is rare!), I try to move past blaming and start asking questions that help me see the emotional process. I try to replace my judgement with questions that help calm me down and focus my thinking on my responsibility as a citizen. Here are some examples.  

Reaction: That person must be supremely dumb to believe that conspiracy theory.

Thought: There seems to be a relationship between the level of societal anxiety and the proliferation of conspiracy theories.

—————————

Reaction: They’re not going to convince anyone if they keep acting like bullies. 

Thought:  When I’m anxious, I get very focused on other people’s maturity level instead of my own.

—————————

Reaction: This problem is too huge for me to make a dent in it.

Thought: How are some people able to stay curious about big problems and chip away at them? What would it look like for me to start engaging this problem?

—————————

Reaction: This is all [insert any politician]’s fault.

Thought: How would I like to respond to this challenge?  

Seeing anxiety at work isn’t about excusing people’s behaviors, or letting them off the hook. It’s about acknowledging that the level of anxiety and the level of maturity will vary among humans.

So I can

A) waste a lot of time and energy trying to make everyone else more mature and less anxious

or

B) get clearer with myself about how my own anxiety has made me crude, reactive, or unreceptive to the facts, or left me feeling helpless. Which happen to be all of the behaviors that I am so quick to point out in others.

What does mature political functioning look like? I think you have to come up with that definition yourself. But when I think of the most mature humans I know, they seem to be able to:

  • Focus on defining their beliefs.
  • Focus on communicating rather than attacking.
  • Relay fact-based rather than fear-based messages.
  • Manage their anxiety when others’ disagree.
  • Examine information that challenges their views.
  • Lead with principle-driven and not relationship-driven behavior.  
  • Sit with the discomfort that problems are complex.

This week I challenge you to observe how anxiety influences your political functioning. When does fear disconnect you from reality? What might it look like to live like a person who responds to challenges with a little more thoughtfulness and a little less reactivity? If you’ve been doing this work, as always, I’d love to hear from you.

News from Kathleen

I’ll be presenting at the Psychiatric Society of Virginia’s fall meeting on September 26th.

Want me to speak to your group? I’ve been doing a lot of presentations on managing anxiety during the pandemic.  Contact me for rates and presentation options.

Buy my book Everything Isn’t Terrible from AmazonBarnes and NobleIndiebound, or anywhere you buy books!

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Get a free Anxiety Journal – Calming Down & Growing Up: A 30 Day Anxiety Journal includes thirty daily prompts to help you reflect on and respond to your anxious behaviors. To receive a copy, submit a copy of your receipt for my book at the Hachette page. Or you can email me.

Check out my website for past newsletters about anxiety and relationships. Follow me on TwitterFacebook, or Instagram, or email me if you have questions about my therapy practice in Washington, DC. Visit the Bowen Center’s website to learn more about Bowen theory, as well their conferences and training programs.