Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Politics of Normalcy

oh Ophelia...

“…if you are not like everybody else, then you are abnormal, if you are abnormal , then you are sick. These three categories, not being like everybody else, not being normal and being sick are in fact very different but have been reduced to the same thing.” Michel Foucault

Perhaps you noticed it, too. The word ‘anxiety’ appearing more and more in conversation, ads and media. People talking, not about ‘being anxious,’ (a moment that can pass) but about ‘having anxiety’ (a permanent affliction).

Social anxiety disorder did not officially exist until it appeared in 1980′s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the DSM-III — the psychiatrist’s bible of psychological afflictions — under the name “social phobia,” the same book which once classified homosexuality as a mental disorder.

By the 1990′s pharmaceutical companies received F.D.A. approval to treat social anxiety and poured tens of millions of dollars into advertising its existence.

In 2002, statistics furnished by Anxiety Disorders Association of America reported that 19.1 million, or 13.3%, of adults ages 18-54 were affected with a form of anxiety disorder. Now the percentage has climbed to 40 million, or 18.1% of the population.

The current version of the DSM-IV describes diagnosis as warranted when anxiety “interferes significantly with work performance” (italics mine) or if the sufferer shows “marked distress” about it.

So in other words, according to the DSM, if you can’t adjust to your life as an employee, you may have a disorder. If it affects your productivity within the system, that’s the true indicator of a problem.

In Madness and Civilization, Michel Foucalt notices the link between society’s labor needs and their attitude towards the socially maladjusted:

Before having the medical meaning we give it, or that at least we like to suppose it has, confinement [of the insane] was required by something quite different from any concern with curing the sick. What made it necessary was an imperative of labor. Our philanthropy prefers to recognize the signs of a benevolence towards sickness where there is only a condemnation of idleness.

Interestingly, angst (often interpreted as “anxiety”) in the philosophical sense, as put forth by existential philosophers Kierkegaard and Sartre, refers to the spiritual dread one experiences in the face of one’s own freedom.

In that context, there begins to appear something ominous about the medication of such a feeling, which may be uncomfortable, but also suggests the presence of our own grand possibility. If anxiety is a natural reaction to the experience of our own overwhelming freedom, what will it mean to repress that sensation?

“The day may come,” says Susan Cain in her recent New York Times article, “Shyness: An Evolutionary Tactic?” ”when we have pills that ‘cure’ shyness and turn introverts into social butterflies [...] [But] the act of treating shyness as an illness obscures the value of that temperament.”

As a culture we need both the shy, sensitive introverts to ponder the deeper meanings of things and the assertive, bold extravert's to take action and get things done. Diversity in a species is an evolutionary advantage.

Case in point: evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson performed a simple but telling experiment on a school of unknowing pumpkinseed sun fish. About 15-20 % of animals display introvert characteristics of caution (interestingly, the same percentage as in humans,) called “sitters,” compared to the more curious, assertive “rover” types…

The biologist lowered a metal trap into the water and a large number of ”rover” sunfish went inside to investigate — only to be caught. While the more tentative “sitter” sunfish, who sat back and watched, remained free.

“Had Professor Wilson’s traps posed a real threat, only the sitters would have survived,” points out Cain. “But had the sitters taken Zoloft and become more like bold rovers, the entire family of pumpkinseed sunfish would have been wiped out. ’Anxiety’ about the trap saved the fishes’ lives.”

Wilson then caught all the sunfish and took them back to his lab. The rovers acclimated faster, eating a full five days earlier than their sitter brethren. In this case, the rovers had the evolutionary advantage.

“There is no single best … personality,” Professor Wilson concludes in his book, “Evolution for Everyone,” “but rather a diversity of personalities maintained by natural selection.”

Yet we live in a culture which treats the sitter personality as freakish. “Just do it!” our slogans roar. Action is prized over contemplation, assertiveness over timidity. One way we manifest this bias as a society is by encouraging perfectly healthy shy people to see their tendencies as problematic, needing to be cured.

Studies show that introverts, who tend to digest information thoroughly, do better in school than their extroverted peers, despite having the same I.Q. The careful, sensitive temperament from which both shyness and anxiety can spring is not only rich in observational skill, insight and inner vision, it may well be essential to the survival of our species — a point well illustrated by our friends the pumpkinseed sunfish.

As science journalist Winifred Gallagher points out: ”The glory of the disposition that stops to consider stimuli rather than rushing to engage with them is its long association with intellectual and artistic achievement. Neither E=mc2 nor ‘Paradise Lost’ was dashed off by a party animal.”

Back to the original thought: being anxious vs having anxiety. This is a shift of language I have witnessed in my lifetime. And what a consequence the simple replacement of “having” with “being” implies: one is an emotion that passes through you, another is something you are stuck with, a state, part of your personality, even your identity.

And could it have anything to do with the multi-million dollar pharmaceutical companies filling the airwaves with the language of “having?”

What great symphonies, works of literature and philosophies would not have been created had the sensitive temperaments creating them been medicated? And what will our society look like in 100 years if it continues down its current trajectory?


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Great little write up. As someone who has had anxiety in my life in the past (it amazing how much work I've done to move past it this year. It works, it really does!) I can relate a lot to what is said here and also appreciate the "forgiving" and "accepting" tone of the piece. I've always thought there might be something wrong with me and so I've see doctors, and jumped deep into personal development and all that kind of thing but the only thing that ever get brought up is a "high IQ" which I have yet to identify in myself and vasts amount of sensitivity and empathy. A side from that I am healthy and normal. Very healthy in fact and very normal. I can have high standards and expectations for myself which when left un-dealt with can be overwhelming at times. But I express this and deal with it. It's easy to be scared of things and I can be pretty rational about it. I know when the fear is logical and I know when I need to jump in and deal with it.
 
 A few weeks ago I became interested in whether or not I fell into the extrovert or the introvert category. I could never decide. I've done the Myers Briggs exam a few times since then and as it turns out I am dead in the center. every time, well, with one extra point on the extrovert side. I also took myself as an introvert through and through. I'm not apparently. I like to be around people to much I guess. Doesn't mean I have to socialize but I am happy just being around people. I also am not scared of attracting attention anymore. I was very strict with myself over the last 5 years, not wanting to attract attention from boys. It was important to me to ensure that the men in my life at the time were comfortable. Plus, I was getting a lot of strange attention which I wasn't too happy with. The last month, it's been a bit better. I've be able to keep the wrong kind of attention away and attract interesting people to talk to. I've been focusing mostly on women which is interesting to me. I think it's because it's important to me to have a nice circle of womanly friends in and around my area.
 
So much has changed in my life, I don't even recognise who I am now compared to who I was a few years ago. All without medication... quitting that sleepy time drug was one of the best things I've done for myself in a long time. I've felt so good the last month. In spite of everything else... underneath I feel good. I am sleeping so well. Only two nights of restless sleep and no nightmares. Amazing.
 
I'm going off on my own little tangent. Same stuff, different post. I just thought the post above was had an interesting perspective. Do you agree or disagree? What has been your experience with anxiety and social situations?

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