The root cause of all our anxiety

Why are we all so anxious? That there has been a rapid and dramatic rise in anxiety in this modern world is clearly true. Even though life is getting better by most measures in that we are working less hours, eating better, enjoying better health and longer lives, yet a huge proportion of people are still spiralling down into deeper levels of anxiety than we’ve ever seen. A third of Britons will experience anxiety disorder at some point. [1] The situation seems to be even worse in America, where 4% of Americans had experienced an anxiety related mental health disorder in 1980, and now half the population has suffered in this way. [2]

Yet, nobody really knows why this is the case.

It’s easy enough to point to a set of contributing factors. First, there are the changes in lifestyle that affect our mental health – sleep loss, being sedentary, staying indoors. A second factor, which is tied to the first, is the rapid development of technology. In his book, Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport describes how he met the head of mental health services at a well-known university in the US. Until recently, she had been dealing with the same routine issues (homesickness, eating disorders, depression, OCD), but there was an abrupt shift that coincided with the universal presence of smartphones:

Seemingly overnight the number of students seeking mental health counseling massively expanded, and the standard mix of teenage issues was dominated by something that used to be relatively rare: anxiety. [3]

A third reason we can point to is the change in the fabric of society that has led to deep and widespread loneliness. Community is a powerful antidote to all kinds of mental health issues, anxiety included. But loneliness is rising, and the very things we need in order to solve this are diminishing: we attend fewer social clubs and societies, we’ve stopped going to church, we’re less likely than any generation in history to get married, we leave our families in pursuit of fulfilling our very personal, individualistic dreams, and so on. The picture is of a generation of lonely individuals working hard to find fulfilment but instead experiencing isolation and rootlessness.

Fourth, there is huge fear about the future. Greta Thunberg is only the latest in a long line of prophets of doom, and her words are designed to unsettle the most apathetic of people. The message is clear; this world is going to burn.

All of this would naturally point to the conclusion that the rise in anxiety is due to a kind of perfect storm of all of the above. In other words, if you wanted to make the most anxious generation in history you would first of all deprive them of sleep, exercise, sunshine, and rest. Then you would keep them in that state by causing them to be addicted to their screens. Next, you’d want to separate them from genuine relationships and connection and physical affection. And finally, you’d tell them the world is about to explode and that they’re powerless to stop it. 

I can certainly see how all of these factors cause anxiety. It’s easy to find data to support them as causes, but they also have the ring of truth; we know intuitively that these kinds of things have had a detrimental effect on our personal wellbeing. 

But there is an incompleteness to this list. There is one great factor that is not often spoken about, but which seems to be present under all of our anxious feelings, and that is the fear of death. You can think of it like this: each expression of anxiety is merely a symptom, a way of your brain telling you that there is a deep unsettlement in your soul. Trace back any particular expression of anxiety to its root, and you will see that all of them are different manifestations of the fear of death.

For example, anxiety and stress from your work is related to the longing for success, which is really the desire to be immortal, to be known and to be remembered. Anxiety about health is based on an awareness that our bodies are relentlessly decaying, no matter how many detox shakes we consume or burpees we perform. Anxiety that springs from loneliness and the longing for love come from that sense that we do not want to be separated from others – the very thing we find sad about death. 

It’s true that death is not new, but what is new is our dire lack of resources – moral, philosophical, theological –  for dealing with death. In other words, we have no idea how to die.

When you spend any time reading about the subject of anxiety, scouring through books that purport to offer solutions and treatments to this problem, you come across many very superficial bits of advice. You may be told to look in the mirror and tell yourself how beautiful and successful you really are. Or you may be told to let go, to surrender to fate, to acknowledge that you’re powerless. The problem, as I see it, is that nobody is really squaring up to this great and immovable problem that is the inevitability of death.

The obvious rebuttal is to point out that everyone everywhere has always known they were going to die – this is no new factor, and so it can’t explain the rise in anxiety. To which I would respond: It’s true that death is not new, but what is new is our dire lack of resources – moral, philosophical, theological –  for dealing with death. In other words, we have no idea how to die.

If it is true that all fears are connected to the basic fear of death (and I think it is) then our narratives around death have a disproportionately important weight in determining our day-to-day emotional states. We live in a day and age in which all sense of wonder and transcendence has been leeched out of the cosmos, and life has no meaning beyond that which we create for it. Death is a certain and empty end, a bottomless pit, a pure blackness without light. But the human soul needs a sense of security and safety beyond the mere provision of daily needs; it craves a kind of cosmic and eternal reassurance.

My central claim, therefore, is not only that our inability to deal with the reality of death is a root cause in the anxiety epidemic, but something further. I suspect that our collective departure from any meaningful spirituality, especially Christian belief, is the fundamental problem here. That is not to say that having a meaningful faith will automatically be a cure for anxiety (though it might). But the Christian faith is a profound answer to the problem of death, since it is centred on an event which is all about the defeat of death – the resurrection of the Son of God.

The reason this is such a potent belief has to do with the fact that it replaces anxiety with its opposite, that is, with hope. The resurrection of Jesus is the foundational belief undergirding Christian hope, because it is the guarantee that death need not be the end. If Jesus was raised from the dead, then we need not fear death any more.

Even if this sounds like an esoteric and other-worldly answer to ordinary day-to-day anxieties, that is only because we have not really stopped to consider how threatening our mortality is. It is the great looming dread that validates all of our present fears. But by the same token, a deep and settled confidence about life beyond death has the power to unravel our trivial and mundane worries by giving us a wide-angle perspective on reality; there is something better to look forward to.

As we in the West continue our slide toward secularism, I predict that mental health issues will continue to rise simply because a godless world is essentially a hopeless world. But I also predict that this will be one of the main reasons we will see a revival of belief, and a renewed interest in the message of a resurrected Jesus.

Andrew Haslam

Andrew Haslam
Andrew is a church leader with a wife and three kids. He is a walking cliché in his enthusiasm for coffee and craft beer.

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