Contemporary anxiety

          If we list our most frequent emotions, we will surely find anxiety in our top-ten. And I bet that many people have it falling under their top-5, though they might not be aware (due to how used we are to it!).

          No one could depict it better than Nik with his Gaturro, so this time he gets the picture-of-the-day award. Endemic anxiety is clearly a contemporary phenomenon. Not that our early ancestors hadn´t felt it –let us not forget that emotions bear an evolutionary ground and have been developing with their variations along tens of thousands of years in our species. But the reasons for anxiety have become more than abundant in the last couple of centuries.

          Can we recognize any pattern in the mechanism of anxiety, or is it that each one of us gets affected in an absolutely particular way? The truth is the answer goes: both. And that’s not playing with words. In fact, each one of us will feel this emotion depending on the circumstances in which we are immersed (as Ortega y Gasset accurately used to say, “I am I and my circumstance”). Anyway, patterns can be noticed; kind of ‘macro’ themes. Deep down these core themes can be explained by certain <<quality>> of stimuli. They are the ones that, decoded by our mind, act as very precise triggers to start the internal mechanism that turns us anxious.

          Paying attention to several issues simultaneously, running from one place to another, not getting on time, not making ends meet, deadlines, multiple demands at once… All these drive us towards anxiety. But beneath this chaotic foam, identifiable triggers underlie.

          The trigger par excellence is related to that feeling of wanting things <<RIGHT NOW>>. And thanks to it, we can begin to explore the mechanism: Our brain is very wise when it comes to comparing what we want –aka our objectives or interests- with what we expect to happen. Wanting a situation is not the same as actually expecting it to happen to us. Our prefrontal cortex is expert in cognitive processes of anticipation, which constitute the so called ‘expectations’. Well, when our mind notices that there is a difference in term between our interests and our expectations, anxiety makes it appearance.

          We want to know right here and right now the mark of an exam we’ve just sat for, but we are aware we won’t get the result until the day after tomorrow. The term of what we want is quite different from what we expect that will indeed take place, right? There, anxiety rides. Moreover, the more we want something the more anxious we will get until that turns up. Now, if intensity variations are at stake, which is the rider causing the gallop?

          It all fundamentally comes down to a hormone that also works as a neurotransmitter, called dopamine. Hormone and neurotransmitter? Exactly. As a hormone, it has its effects in the body: in the muscles and in different organs, through the bloodstream. As a neurotransmitter, it performs the task of ‘switching’ on and off entire neural circuits in the brain. That’s why anxiety connects so intimately information (what we think, believe, assume) with brain chemistry.

          The brain system causing the dopamine flows is the one that identifies very precisely the object of our interest. Dopamine has a leading role in incentive. But this system also measures the probable term in which the target will become at reach. I need to get to work early and ¡bam! the subway service stops between stations. Dopamine order for one! Sometimes it seems that the helping is for two, because anxiety turns us remarkably uncomfortable, not knowing what to do or think, playing with our fingers and snorting.

          It wasn’t the same for our early ancestors, of course not. Dopamine once had the basic function for which it came into existence: it prepares the body for action. Dopamine turns it on, activates it, so that we can go for our interests. For our ancestors that meant getting ready to go out and pick up some fruits or hunt when hungry, ready to look for our offspring or peers of the tribe in case we split, ready to explore carefully new lands. All those activities in which they involved their full body. Nevertheless, nowadays we mainly involve the mind. And so weird things happen: while working in front of a computer, we frantically shake our leg. Or we spin the pen on our fingers during a lesson which has us passively sitting but at full mental speed. Dopamine prepares us for an action we do not carry out.

          Dopamine also comes with a side of fries, because it is not only the term that our anticipatory processes measure. It is the ‘manner’ as well. That is to say, to which extent we will fulfill our goal. Are we expecting to go off the road too much? I’d like all my friends to be present for lunch but given the rain only a few have turned up… That might turn me anxious.

          And it is right here where our contemporary lifestyle enters the game. We know this concept: conflicting interests. It means opposing goals and motivations. The interesting thing is that conflicting interests do not only happen when people interact (and we have many of those nowadays… both people and interactions). They also take place inside people! As we want more than one thing at the same time, we must distribute resources among different purposes. Splitting energy, effort, dedication, attention and time. When internal anticipation intervenes, it obviously figures out that in order to accomplish an objective RIGHT NOW, it is necessary to delay another. And in order to fulfill one single wish in a 100%, we must give up part of the others.

          Our contemporary society is known, precisely, for having caused an amazing range of options to blossom. Since kids we are exposed to a whole span of possibilities, which leads us to have multiple interests rising within over and over again. This T-shirt or that one in another color? Sushi or barbeque? Shall we go to the beach or to the countryside? Shall we fly American or Delta? Do I buy it in 12 payments or 18? LCD or rather LED? Would I better study psychology, architecture, medicine, law or business administration?

          A hyperdescriptive image is found in the movie The hurt locker, in which the guy is back home after dismantling bombs in the Middle East. He faces a whole supermarket aisle of cereals to choose…

          Besides, while we do something… we might probably be thinking of doing something else. Now I’m in the gym, but how much I’d love to be at the movies. Now I’m with my friends, but how I wish I was with my couple. What’s more, we train ourselves to ‘tolerate’ certain activities in the pursuit of long term interests (such as working for a month salary or studying for a degree), being consequently subjected to giving up immediate gratification. What we do not give up, of course, is craving.

          From the typical mental-block of indecision (‘paralysis-by-analysis’), through the vegetative hyperactivity which makes us toss and turn restlessly in bed, to GAD (generalized anxiety disorder), many are the current expressions of this emotion. It is unarguably evident that a permanent overexposure to an excessive range of alternatives, activities, demands and deadlines, generate all these conflicting interests within. Together with the anticipatory processes that compare motivations vs. expectations. Together with dopamine in which our neurons splash about. Contemporary anxiety, thus, ends up being all around us.




  • Nik (2011), <<Gaturro>>; La Nación Revista, Sunday August 14th, 2011, (p.89).
  • Bigelow, Kathryn (2008), The Hurt Locker; USA, (film).


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