Why Do We Feel So Anxious In Today’s Overheated World?
The certainties we lost
The coronavirus and Covid-19 pandemic are creating a lot of uncertainty, stress, and anxiety amongst people all over the world. But it is not just corona. Also before corona, the world seemed heated—overheated perhaps.
This applies at the political level, in the many international tensions, disagreements, and conflicts that are going on. But, it also applies at the individual level, where people aren’t as relaxed, patient, and forgiving as they could be.
To find ways to deal with the anxiety, it is useful to find an answer to the question as to why people are getting so anxious. Of course, we can blame corona, or the government.
But there is something more fundamental at work. As the research for my book, No More Bananas: How to Keep Your Cool in the Collective Madness showed, the main reason seems to be that all our certainties of the past are gone, and that the current crisis is challenging our access to our last resort—other people—as well.
The certainties we lost
We live in a postmodern society. Postmodernism is a Western philosophy that came up around the 1950s. It is characterized by an attitude of skepticism, subjectivism and relativism, a denial of all structures, ideologies and certainties of the past and a general suspicion of reason.
Today, this is no longer just a philosophy engaging a handful of philosophers. Rather, it has invaded our lives and become part of our mainstream, everyday way of thinking.
We can think of postmodernism as a way of thinking that liberates us from the preconceptions and boundaries of the past. It does away with the straitjackets of science, reason and logic and it makes sure we don’t take things for granted.
It gives a lot of freedom in what and how to think, feel and act. This sounds good. But it also makes us feel lost. If nothing is certain anymore, what can we rely on?
In the past, we had various pillars that provided us with a level of certainty that made our lives comforting.
- We had kings, emperors and pharaohs to obey. We feared them, but they offered us protection and predictability.
- We had gods, churches and priests to have faith in. They gave us the comfort of forgiveness and the promise of heaven.
- We had witches, magicians and alchemists to believe. They made us feel more certain about what would happen to us in the future.
- We had science, universities and professors we could depend on. They made us feel masters of the universe and showed us the truth about our world.
All of that, many of us—at least in Western society—have abandoned today.
We don’t accept any know-it-all leaders, we don’t believe in an omnipresent god, we are suspicious of anything that is non-scientific and, with the many cases of fraud we are confronted with, we don’t even trust science any longer either.
Our postmodern thinking has flushed all these certainties down the toilet.
Our last resort—other people
In our quest for certainty, grip and support, the only seemingly dependable pillar we have left is The Other—other people. This is our friends and families, but also celebrities or any other people we want to relate ourselves to.
We look to them to get the desired feeling of certainty about what we should be doing.
We copy their behavior, we take their opinions seriously, we try to please them, and we try to be as them. And since we are all doing this and aping each other, we create and perpetuate our own vicious socio-psychological stress-cycle.
You know how this works. Either in a documentary or for real, you must have seen schools of fish, flocks of birds, or herds of wildebeest making extreme, unexpected and stressful movements when danger is signaled.
Whenever an enemy approaches, the whole school, flock or herd moves from one direction to another in an attempt to escape the danger. This is pretty much how we, as grown-up people, often behave collectively.
The three-sided corona effect
All of this was already going on for a while. But the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated it in three related ways:
- Corona makes us more uncertain, stressed, and anxious. The crisis challenges many things we took for granted—such as going to work, having a job, visiting family and friends, and living in a growing economy, thereby increasing uncertainty.
- Corona makes us look more to other people. Because we feel more uncertain, stressed, and anxiety, and because the only “certainty” left are other people, we look carefully at what they do. Hoarding behavior is a good example.
- Corona makes other people less accessible. With social distancing being the main strategy to beat the virus, getting in touch with other people has become more challenging. In times of uncertainty, we need our friends and family most. But through corona, it is exactly this last resort that we hardly can connect to anymore.
Of course, this analysis is brief and it lacks important subtleties and evidence. Nevertheless, it offers a viable perspective on what is going on. Once we are aware that this is one of the important reasons why we feel so anxious, we can start working on it.
The main journey, as referred to in an earlier article, is to work on ourselves and learn how to become more grounded and confident, so that we can keep our cool in this overheated world.
Dr Jeroen Kraaijenbrink is an accomplished strategy educator, speaker, writer and consultant with over two decades of experience bridging academia and industry. Drawing from cognitive psychology, humanism, Saint Benedict, and a wide range of other sources, he is the author of numerous articles on strategy, sustainability and personal leadership and five books: Strategy Consulting, No More Bananas, Unlearning Strategy, and the two-volume practical guide to strategy The Strategy Handbook. He is an active Forbes contributor where he writes about strategy, leadership and how to embrace the complexity and uncertainty of this world. Jeroen has a PhD in industrial management, teaches strategy at the University of Amsterdam Business School, and has helped many midsized and larger companies across the engineering, manufacturing, healthcare and financial services industries.