This essay was originally published on May 17 2019.
Anxiety — that chronic, widespread uncertainty proliferating out of the insecurities that exemplify modern life — has become the lodestone of 21st century consumer capitalism.
From fidget spinners, gravity blankets, CBD oils, air fresheners and skincare products to white noise machines, salt lamps, calming diffusers and the countless meditation apps inundating our smartphones, in recent years the promise of alleviating anxiety has become a multi-billion dollar industry. Yet by affirming an escape from anxiety through easily consumable do-it-yourself fixes, this ‘anxiety economy’ places the burden of treatment directly on the anxious.
Atomizing discourses of ‘self-care’ and ‘wellness’ persuade people that if they are feeling sick, depressed, or anxious, the issues are not social or economic, but individual. This serves to obscure the fact that social and economic life has become far less secure in recent years due to dramatic reductions in privacy, workplace rights, job security, regulatory oversight, pay levels, and social welfare, which has led to large increases in chronic stress across the populations of many countries.
When examined as a broader socio-economic epidemic, anxiety reveals itself not as a private emotional deficiency that can be mitigated by the false promises of anxious consumerism, but a commonly felt and identifiable ‘structure of feeling’ that cuts, unevenly, across racial and gendered lines. Following from this, the shared realization that ‘you are not alone in this dead-end job, this bottomless debt, this paralyzing depression’ can establish new propositions about the root causes of our anxieties, which can help stimulate people’s capacities for working together to build a more permanent and collective means of addressing this condition beyond the individuating and often highly inaccessible offerings of a burgeoning anxiety economy.
If we consider the context of 2016, arguably one of the more anxiety-inducing years in recent memory, increasingly desperate calls for reprieve from the insecurities of modern life make sense. Indeed, Futurism, the company that introduced the gravity blanket, came up with the idea in December 2016, shortly after Brexit and Trump’s presidential election. Yet to claim the influx of anxiety-quelling products and services were a direct effect of any single event would be an oversimplification of health trends already in place: worldwide, anxiety-related diagnoses have been on the rise for years, and mental health is increasingly more socially acceptable to discuss and monetize.
Between 1990 and 2013, researchers from the World Health Organization estimated that reports of depression and anxiety had risen from 416 million to 615 million. By 2017, that number had risen again to around 740 million. Today, according to the World Health Atlas, anxiety-related disorders, panic disorders, and other social phobia are the leading causes of disability worldwide.
Google Trends show that the search interest over time for anxiety between 2004 and 2019 has more than doubled worldwide. During that same period, relative search interest in ‘anxiety help’ increased by 82%, while ‘work anxiety’ rose 83%. Whereas related terms like ‘stress’, ’fear’, and ‘depression’ have leveled out, concerns about anxiety continue to swing upwards, couched in qualifiers such as ‘economic anxiety’, ‘cultural anxiety’ and ‘racial anxiety’, which highlight the increasingly politicalized nature of the problem.
A recent report by futures think tank Wunderman Thompson Intelligence highlights that global increases in anxiety and insecurity are having a profound impact on consumer culture and emerging trends. From concerns over privacy and wellbeing to an impending environmental crisis, marketing firms are working in overdrive to turn concerns over malicious hackers, impossible beauty standards, genetically-modified foods, post-truth media, and socio-economic precarity into new market opportunities as consumers seek ways to self-soothe and navigate this storm. Fueled by increasing economic, financial and geopolitical uncertainties, the workplace wellness market is already worth $48 billion dollars. It continues to grow at a rate of 4.8% a year as firms bring in equipment, services, and programs designed to oversee their employees’ mental and physical health.
And this is but a drop in an ocean. The Global Wellness Institute recently reported that the wellness market, which encompasses everything from boutique fitness gyms to day spas and meditation retreats, grew 12.8% from 2015 to 2017. To put that in economic terms, from 2015 to 2017 the wellness economy grew 6.4% annually, nearly twice as fast as global economic growth (3.6%). Wellness expenditures ($4.2 trillion) are now more than half as large as total global health expenditures ($7.3 trillion). Today, the wellness industry represents 5.3% of global economic output. Moreover, Apple recently pegged ‘self-care’ as its top breakout trend, highlighting that mental health tech dealings tripled in 2018 as startups like Calm, Shine, and Headspace expanded their non-pharmacological, non-medical offerings for developing habits and practices to help manage stress and anxiety.
As the market feeds these increasing demands for downloadable solutions, the business of producing and promoting temporary reprieves from general anxiousness will continue to boom. The point is not whether these products actually alleviate anxiety — although their creators often have little, if any, scientific data that demonstrates they can actually work. Moreover, utilizing a sensory stimulant like a stress-ball for relief is certainly nothing new. The point is that these products and services are perfectly designed to fit in with a society that itself is the underlying cause of so much of people’s anxiety and insecurity.
Alone with everybody
What connects sensory toys to streamlined apps and focus-grouped blankets is a ‘public secret’ that remains largely unspoken in this growing space where consumer solutions meet mental health challenges: none of these products are equipped to address the underlying conditions generating and proliferating our anxieties, even if they can offer short-lived relief from some of the symptoms.
For instance, meditation apps can indeed help someone to meditate, and meditation may reduce anxiety. Moreover, weighted blankets may calm someone down enough to fall asleep, which will help them to feel better the next day. And fidget devices can distract us so instead of churning over our insecurities, we are expending their energy on something else. By diagnosing people with vague, ubiquitous conditions — be it the ‘desire to fidget with random objects’, ‘nervousness in the workplace’, or ’having trouble falling asleep’ — such marketing strategies are both exploiting and also exacerbating a general atmosphere of anxiousness, promising quick, easy, customizable mental health solutions for every consumer’s budget so they can keep on living as they have been.
The more paranoid and insecure people feel, the more they are likely to be pushed and prodded through isolation and self-quantification. Indeed, as Will Davies points out in The Happiness Industry, it is precisely this vivid and omnipresent feeling of anxiety that serves as the neoliberal social order’s dominant force. From initiatives for workplace wellness to social media campaigns aimed at raising mental health awareness, the use of indicators and metrics to assess and evaluate people’s professional and personal performances and lifestyles often further provokes and sustains feelings of inadequacy and competition that are crucial to the functioning of this order.
Far from a panacea for anxiety, the constant pressure to optimize mindfulness and to master self-care tend to make it worse. If a person is feeling anxious, the assumption is that they are operating in this way due to their internalized failings — i.e. not having adequate sleep hygiene, eating properly, exercising enough, or taking the necessary time for relaxation. Through such personalized forms of treatment, people become more and more detached from one another, struggling under the same system but struggling inwardly and separately because we have been tricked into thinking we can only work to improve our lives on an individual basis.
If self-care and wellness are mental health solutions for the modern era, this is because they slot neatly into the isolating discourses of neoliberal capitalism, which treat anxiety as a personal problem divorced from its material context. This centers the primacy of the sovereign neoliberal individual, where the content of one’s intentions wholly encapsulates the meaning of their actions, and one’s feelings manifest as reasoned choices rather than structural conditions of power. In other words, ‘you are not depressed or anxious because your life is a constant struggle against privation, poverty, or prejudice; the problem is always and only with you — your failings as a productive, moral agent to effect change by improving your own behaviors and habits.’
When people talk about anxiety in this way, the systemic effects of gender, race, class, ability, and sexuality are obscured. As David Coburn points out in Morbid Symptoms, this framework, whereby a broad range of social issues are reconstituted in highly individualized terms, is utterly ineffective in addressing the causes of mental health challenges because it generates an insidious atmosphere that superimposes notions of personal responsibility for one’s own wellbeing as a way to offload the burden of care onto the individual. Yet the anxiety economy’s blueprint for self-care and wellness is always the same: fixate on your personalized symptoms of anxiousness and develop plans for replacing habits deemed to be sub-optimal with habits that are more productive.
We are all anxious
Anxiety, as Mark Fisher emphasizes in Capitalist Realism, always has social causes, but we are prevented from considering such conditions as shared ones. Instead, people are led to believe their suffering is personal and they must struggle alone, which reinforces vulnerability and disposability. Against this hyper-individualistic vision of mental health, it is important to reiterate that the myriad of products proliferated for treating our insecurities — from the gravity blanket and fidget spinner to the yoga retreat and the Netflix binge — skew how we understand anxiety and its function in the reproduction of social and economic uncertainty.
Today, more and more people are facing material and emotional experiences of unpredictability and insecurity on a previously unimagined scale. These insecurities are constantly reinforced by the fact that the demand for conformity is connected to a vague set of criteria which is always changing. Yet by reproducing an isolationism that ignores the shared experiences of anxiety, the treatments on offer are essentially solo journeys for sufferers. And while the appeal of individualistic therapeutic approaches to the problems of our time are not difficult to apprehend, the resultant effect is an anxiety economy that, on the one hand, locates blame for a myriad of complex social and economic factors in one’s personal failings as a corollary of the neoliberal doctrine of individuality. On the other, it generates a naturalized and depoliticized view of anxiety, precisely because it masks the transnational capitalist context within which social relations of precarity and uncertainty are constructed and embedded.
In a review of prominent studies on the correlation between anxiety and the 2008 financial crisis, researchers at the University of Florence observed that all of them found economic insecurity to be a central stressor negatively impacting mental health. We cannot continue to delink anxiety from the economic interdependencies stretched across the social positions people occupy. Similarly, in a report on mental health and global warming, the American Psychology Association found that a sense of impending doom brought on by environmental crisis has triggered a syndrome that has been appropriately named ‘eco-anxiety.’ We cannot continue to pretend the experience of the anxious individual exists separate from the spaces in which they live.
As the Institute for Precarious Consciousness points out, it is only through the generation of shared solidarities that rebuild confidence in our collective capacities to live differently can the current mental health cartel be dismantled. In this regard, the proliferation of the anxiety economy and its resultant feelings of alienation also contain the seeds for germinating new forms of collective care because they provide the clear focus needed for organizing.
By utilizing anxiety as a lightning rod to connect people’s individuated problems to larger social and structural issues, we can begin to recognize the systemic nature of our insecurities — affirming that our mental health challenges, while nuanced and distinct, are not only personal but also collective. The point is not simply to recount our experiences but to restructure and transform them into a sense of anxious solidarity. Only then can we begin to refocus on shared expressions of trust and feeling that can truly help us to feel better.
Say it with me now — ‘we are all anxious.’
A.T. Kingsmith is a PhD candidate in the Department of Politics at York University, a research fellow at the UBC Urban Studies Lab, and a co-founder of EiQ, an organization that utilizes biometrics to construct large-scale interactive databases of the human-emotional terrain.