Constant Anxiety Won’t Save the World

August 19, 2017
When New York Magazine published a story about the apocalyptic dangers of climate change last month, it was shared widely, and with alarm. People tweeted things like “Read this and get very, very scared,” or otherwise prescribed fear and worry as the appropriate reaction to the piece. They were mimicking the tone of the story itself, which starts by saying “It is, I promise, worse than you think,” and goes on to avow that “no matter how well-informed you are, you are surely not alarmed enough.”

This weirdly suggests that there is a level of alarmed that would be “enough.” Enough for what? Even if the goal is to alarm people into action, there’s a disconnect here: Anxiety is not a necessary prerequisite for action.

My colleague Robinson Meyer questioned how realistic the extremely bleak outlook of the article is—but I’m concerned not with its specific take on the climate science, but with its explicit call for anxiety, and the calls for anxiety it inspired among people who shared it. While the intentions might be good, moralizing worry distracts from the real goal by turning people’s attention inward to their own emotional states, rather than outward onto the problem.

“We make the assumption that if people are aware of how urgent and frightening and scary these issues are, then people will automatically translate that into ‘Oh my gosh, what kind of actions can I take?’” says Renee Lertzman, a psychologist who studies climate-change communication. “That’s just simply not the case.”

Emotional appeals have long been a mainstay of both politics and activism, but now on social media these appeals can come constantly from peers. Whereas the call of the Black Lives Matter movement and others to “stay woke” asks for awareness and alertness, sometimes people go beyond spreading awareness of the issues they care about to spreading anxiety and stress. They share climate articles and call for worry. They share stories of injustice, saying “stay angry.” New scandals of President Donald Trump’s administration are met with calls from his opponents saying “stay outraged.” Across different corners of the internet, people invoke fear that immigrants will take American jobs, that Trump will launch a nuclear war, that liberals are coming to take their guns away.

These sort of posts are “a way of managing anxiety for those who are feeling deeply anxious,” Lertzman suspects. “When we’re anxious and we’re scared, we want others to feel it too. It’s contagious.”

Just as social media allowed fake news to spread untrammeled through ideological communities that already largely agreed with each other, it also creates containers for anxiety to swirl in on itself, like a whirlpool in a bottle.

“If you look at the right-hand side of the aisle, and the left, they’re each talking about the things they fear the most,” says Morrow Cater, the president of the bipartisan consulting firm Cater Communications. “The anxiety that you’re talking about—be vigilant!—it comes when you’re fearful.”

I would have thought that constant vigilance wouldn’t really be possible. But Scott Woodruff, the director of the anxiety and obsessive-compulsive treatment program at the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy, told me I’d be surprised. “The anxious mind and the worried mind can manage to bring back topics over and over again,” he says. “It is possible that people can really spend quite an amount of time every day worrying about world events.”

Studies show that anxiety can interfere with decision-making and working memory. “Excessive worry can lead to fatigue, lack of concentration, and muscle tightness,” Woodruff says. “The interesting thing is the fatigue and lack of concentration are the opposite of what people are trying to promote when they’re advocating for vigilance.”

If that stress and worry becomes chronic, Lertzman adds, “people get overwhelmed. They burn out and short-circuit and turn their backs on the very issues that they care most deeply about.”

This happens sometimes in activist communities. Cher Weixia Chen, a professor at George Mason University, studies the phenomenon of activist burnout. In interviews she’s done with activists, she’s found that common causes of burnout are: infighting within activist communities, a “culture of martyrdom” that prizes overworking and discourages self-care, and “deep sensitivities to injustice that made the slow process of social change difficult to bear.”

Activists pour a lot of emotional labor into their work, Chen says, which “heightens the risk of discouragement and despair when their work becomes too overwhelming.” Sometimes, for their health, people find it necessary to step away from activism altogether.

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