An epidemic of Anxiety

The title for this address came to me while listening to an afternoon radio programme. The programme featured a psychologist; the presenter invited listeners to submit questions about parenting to the psychologist. As often happens; a theme developed, many questions were about how to deal with anxiety. The psychologist went on to say the he believed that we are living through “an epidemic of Anxiety” he said that he had treated children as young as two years of age who are self harming because of anxiety.
          The image of toddlers self harming is alarming. Of course if a child is anxious, in the absence of an underlying medical condition, the child is probably manifesting the anxiety of the parent or parents.
          Anxiety is defined as worry or nervousness about something that is happening or that may happen in the future. Anxiety is a rational response to something that threatens our safety or wellbeing. However the psychologist intimated that this was general worry about what may happen in the future.
          From a rational perspective Irish people should be among the least anxious people in the world. We live in a peaceful country with a benign climate we have full employment we live in a democratic state with a safety net of social security. Why is there is an epidemic of anxiety?
          While we are fortunate to live in this country probably the constant feed of international news contributes to a sense of unease. We wonder how Brexit will affect the economy and whether American foreign policy may further de-stabelise the world. These are matters outside of our control and these are not the cause of anxiety in two year olds.
          I found myself wondering if the fall off in religious practice among Irish people is contributing to anxiety among adults. Karl Marx called religion the opium of the people. If Marx is correct – that religion dulls our emotions- are we replacing the opium of religion with anxiety medication and psychotherapy? Research confirms that overall a religious belief contributes to mental wellbeing.
          The religious impulse is inbuilt within humanity. Religions have evolved with the evolution of human thinking. The ancient religions honoured the Gods with the expectation that the God would ensure a supply of food. In these circumstances then the very act of making an offering will evoke a sense of well being.
          Natural features such as springs, rivers and mountains were revered for their mystery. How could water come from the earth to form a spring or a great river? Our ancestors honoured this mystery and they devised ways of tuning into the mystery as a coping mechanism.
          People visited these sacred places; no doubt they travelled with their personal anxieties and they left behind a piece of cloth tied to a tree. Rag trees are still found beside sacred wells. It was believed that as the cloth rotted the problem would be resolved. These ancient beliefs were not based on science but the psychological insight is faultless.
          Time heals most things. This message comes clear and true in the Jewish scriptures. In the book of Ecclesiastes written three thousand years ago we are told that everything comes in its season. There is a time for sadness and a time for joy – all things change and it reassures us that “there is nothing new under the sun”. The Jewish scriptures address every human experience when we read them we know that someone else has had this experience and survived it.
          Christian teaching is even more comforting for those who feel anxious. Jesus says “do not worry about tomorrow God your father knows your needs. He tells us that humans are so precious that even the hairs of our head are numbered”. In Christianity every person – even the poor, the marginalised and the worried are equally important. The other foundation stone of Christianity is community, care for one another.
          We grew up where religious practice was part of life. Despite the errors within religions we did learn the Christian message that every human being has value; that everything transpires is the will of a benign power. And of course religious practice supports community. Religion contributes to and reinforces a sense of mental wellbeing. We went to church every Sunday where that was the consistent message.
          Our churches are largely empty, this message is not being heard. Advertising is now the most persistent communication people hear. Advertisers present us with images where everyone is happy. People manage to work in a high powered job, raise children, and have an immaculately clean homes and still have time to socialise. While individual adverts are harmless the cumulative affect is that we may believe that we are the only ones who are not achieving it all.
          This was broadly what I planned to say in this address and I intended to finish by going through the spiritual practices of prayer, meditation and spending time in nature- all things contribute to creating a sense of well being.
          Then I was given an address delivered by Rev.Savill Hicks. I hope you are all sitting comfortably! the address is 5,560 words in length which I estimate would take about one and a half hours to deliver. I will share parts of the address with you.

          I believe this was given in 1914/1915. I saw the words 'Frayed Nerves' and I thought great I might not have to write a service at all. I didn’t pay enough attention to the second line in the title which says “and Self Control”. Savell Hicks is more concerned with Self Control than with anyone’s frayed nerves.
          To day we speak of the snowflake generation referring to young adults we believe are less resilient than previous generations. I would love to hear Savill Hicks’ take on the “snowflake Generation”!
          Savill Hicks believed in tough love. He deals with “Frayed Nerves” by pointing out the reality that there is a war on. (WW I). If you do not feel worried then you are sub human or a superhuman. There is no excuse for allowing external events dictate your mindset. He reminded them that the “Kingdom of God is found within”
          “Always remember that you are the master in your own soul, your own mind and that to assert that mastery, for good, is the real essence of all real life and all real religion”.
          When experiencing genuine troubles he advises that you ask yourself the following questions firstly, “is it possible that you are exaggerating?” The second question is “can I remedy this?
          The cure he says is “work, not worry; for worry is the helpless running round and round that gets us nowhere. Worry is waste of time, temper, energy, vitality, opportunity. It is a crime against your own soul”.
          What if there is no cure then the problem? Well then it “must perforce keep you company on life’s journey then you must come to terms with it somehow, minimise its ill effects, extract it’s sting” He does concede that this is not easy! But he points out that the world is full of ordinary heroes who did not let adversity define how they lived. He tells us that rather than bemoaning the way things are that we should work to change the world. Then he writes of the dangers of half truths. He says that no situation is every completely black or completely white. There is always some redeeming feature- or it could always be worse. What we do is we take the part that suits our agenda and we ignore the other part! Have we worked to explore every possibility before declaring we have “no choice”. Or how much effort do we spend on trying to open a door to a different opportunity.
          “We all of us have too great a tendency to utter this miserable, victim of circumstances whine, this easy excuse that fate did this or that to us, or that God is so unjust and unkind that He thrusts us into this dreadful position” We all know the truth that the ultimate freedom than can never be taken from us is our choice of how we react to the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Do we live it?
          Savill Hicks finishes by reminding us of the importance of three virtues namely Self-reverence, Self-knowledge, Self-control. He writes “The stress and strain of life are great. The need for sane and balanced thought and for mind and nerves under control is all the greater. The Kingdom of heaven on earth comes not by observation….. …. It must be born within the heart of man…. And when goodwill, kindness, brotherhood and generosity are there they will find their outlet in character and in our daily life.”
          Tough love indeed! I would have advised talking a walk in nature and to feel its peace enter you soul.

Rev.Bridget Spain
Minister Dublin Unitarian Church                                      Dublin 27th October 2019