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Thursday, March 06, 2008


Someone close to me has been very anxious lately, and it’s got me thinking about anxiety in general. My friend, psychologist and book author Tamar Chansky says that 1 out of 4 people in our culture suffers from anxiety, which might explain why ads like this one for Ativan have gotten so common. It makes one wonder why we seem more anxious than people in previous eras, who arguably had even fewer certainties in their lives. I remember wandering through the upstate Pennsylvania cemetery where my father is buried, reading the tombstones of families from the 1800s who lost children more frequently than I can imagine. Were mothers of that time constantly on edge for the next potential loss, or were they, as I imagine, more fatalistic, less prone to worry about what they could not control? That was certainly true of people in the African village where I served in the Peace Corps in the eighties. One of the things I enjoyed most about that experience was the worry-free atmosphere of Botswana where the Ativan ad would have seemed out of place, not least because there were no billboards, magazine stands, or televisions where I lived.

The role of advertising is one of the things that I think sets our culture apart, and not in a good way. In fact, I can’t help wondering to what extent the Ativan ad, with its darkened North America, promotes the very anxiety its product claims to cure. This, after all, is the strategy of much advertising: make customers anxious about their hair or weight or breath and then offer them a product that will solve the problem they didn’t know they had before the advertising. Political ads often follow the same strategy. Hillary Clinton’s red phone ad comes to mind, with its pictures of vulnerable children sleeping through a dangerous world crisis. The question of which presidential candidate is best prepared to respond to a world crisis is certainly legitimate, but the deliberate fueling of fear seems pretty cynical to me. Of course, the media is no better. Just the ads for the local news—“A new food hazard that could threaten your family: tune in at 11!”—are enough to make me want to reach for a bottle of something soothing.

I am sure anti-anxiety medications have their place and are really helpful to people with chronic anxiety. It’s not the Avitan-takers I have a problem with, but the culture that seems to deliberately promote anxiety. I know I’m not immune from its influence. I’ve started seeing an acupuncturist (first for a recurring cough, and now for my hypothyroid), and every time I see her she tells me, “Relax more” after taking my pulse and looking at my tongue. I’m not sure what she sees in my tongue, but her advise has made me realize that I do cough more when feeling under stress. I know there is a clear relationship between my stress and my heartburn as well, so I have a real physical interest in finding ways to relax, which I know is better for my children (and probably my husband), too.

Much of my own stress is about time and what I feel I need to get done. Last Saturday at an extended meeting for worship held for Quakers who want to worship for hours at a time I heard the message that it was not my outward life I needed to change, but my inward life. The next day I heard John O'Donohue on Speaking of Faith say that stress came from a distorted relationship with time. I need to sit with that idea more, but it does seem to ring true. My task seems to be about trusting God’s time and not being ruled by my to-do list, or even worse, my anxieties about getting through my to-do list.


Blogger Lone Star Ma said...

I agree about the anxiety-pushing culture, but I don't know about the attitude about time thing. If you take it to the fatalistic Botswana lack of anxiety, then yes...but many of us really don't have the time we need due to necessary employment and caregiving responsibilities and we need real outward change, too.

7:18 PM  
Blogger Eileen Flanagan said...

Good point, Lone Star Ma, though I think it was the message I needed. There are many real stressors, but I know that much of my stress I put on myself.

9:14 PM  
Blogger Eileen Flanagan said...

The New York Times just had an interesting Op-ed on time. The second half seemed particularly relevent to this post. I'm not sure if the above link will work, so if not here is the address:

10:24 AM  
Blogger hi mik1986 said...

If you find that you are constantly stressed out about something or worrying for no reason, then you might be suffering from a panic attack. They can happen to anyone, but seeking out a therapist is good especially for those who experience panic attacks frequently.

11:57 PM  
Blogger Eileen Flanagan said...

Interesting that hi mik1986 (who does not have an available profile) thought to leave me a link to buy drugs. No thanks, mik1986. I don't have panic attacks, just the typical stress of a working mom in a culture that doesn't support mothers as much as some do.

9:02 AM  

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