The Anthropology of Anxiety & the Coronavirus 9 Apr 2020
Anxiety caused by worry or fear is a significant part of human nature so it is unsurprising that the pandemic of Covid-19 has hugely increased people’s anxiety across the globe.
In our evolutionary past as a species, anxiety has served us well causing us to avoid the physical dangers that stalked homo sapiens, like ending up as lunch for some predators. Anxiety kept us alert, on the lookout for danger in a hostile environment. The complacent members of the species were the ones that got killed and eaten, the anxious ones took no risks, always prepared for fight or flight. Anxiety was in the genes of the survivors and that got handed down over hundreds of thousands of years to each new generation. Although the threats and dangers of our hunter-gather past no longer haunt most societies in the world, those genes still dominate modern humans. Civilisation, homo sapiens’ historical period is incredibly short, just thousands of years compared with the hundreds of thousands of years of our evolutionary past. We may rightly believe those emotions and behaviour that were practical in our Stone Age (Paleolithic) past are no longer appropriate for our modern scientific world but they are instinctive and cannot be simply shed by rational thinking. Therefore, our reaction to uncertainty, when we can no longer control the present or predict the future, can be acute anxiety, which may result in a range of emotional states from panic to serious depression.
Apart from the uncertainty and anxiety caused by there being no clear end to the pandemic, social distancing and self-isolation have turned everyday acts like shopping into stressful situations: panic buying, empty selves, queuing in latex gloves and face masks, avoiding proximity increases stress and our vulnerability to anxiety. At the same time, because of the lockdown, being cooped up at home, especially with our loved ones, can cause tensions because although we are social animals we all need space. Families are inevitably full of unspoken but felt issues which are generally managed by some form of mental or physical distancing. Think about the Christmas period when families get together and see more of each other than normal. Tensions can mount and it is no accident that more divorces are sought after Christmas than at any other time of the year.
Ok then, we are under stress and your anxiety is climbing through the roof, what is to be done? First, get a grip on reality and allow your rational self to overcome those instinctive emotions and impose order on the uncertainty, so you are back in control and you can suppress your anxiety. Order your day with routine and ritual, so that each moment of the day, each week there is an activity that is scheduled – this is especially important for children who need order to make sense of the world in which they are so dependent on others. For your mind some peace and contemplation – this might be mindfulness, meditation or some other learned technique. Ensure you are taking some exercise – best if you can make contact with the natural world (human being’s original environment) but all exercise will lead to mens sana in corpore sano, (Latin for healthy body healthy mind). Avoid over exposure to the news. The media inevitably focuses on what is going wrong so the latest dire statistics can instill a sense of hopelessness and panic. Get a sense of balance and proportion and don’t take on responsibilities for what is happening out there over which you have no control. Concentrate on your circumstances and what you can control. Social media is a great boon in a time when your movement is restricted and normal socialising is forbidden but avoid being sucked into fake news ( I refer you to my blog about conspiracy theories) and treat the myriad of theories explanations, cures for Covid-19, etc. with healthy scepticism. Get your news from reliable, official corroborated sources.
Finally, also think about others and how you can help. Yes, evolution has dictated the survival of the fittest and that can make us callous and selfish. However, one of the special characteristics of humans is our ability to empathise and cooperate. It has enabled us to be incredibly adaptable and dominate the planet; of course, not always rationally or altruistically, as evidenced by wars, climate change, poverty and so on but in times of crisis we can pull together. There is also good evidence that when we do help others, we not only achieve a good but deflect concern about our own problems, lift morale and calm our anxiety!
By Tim Boatswain, Professor of Anthropology & History and Chairman of the St Albans Civic Society. Follow Tim on Twitter @timboatswain.