It seems that a look at the news these days rewards viewers with an endless list of intense and often times unfortunate events. Looking at news headlines and you see a whole lot of what is going wrong in the world: attacks on politicians, fires destroying homes, the migrant crisis in europe, ISIL in the Middle East, fighting in the Donbas, a drug war gone out of control in the Philippines, the environment falling apart, not to mention our own domestic issues clamouring for our attention on our very own front door. With so many incidents making the news, one "EXCLUSIVE!" following one "BREAKING NEWS!" after another, and so on, it is with little wonder that society is on the edge of its figurative seat waiting for the next big bit of scary, nasty to rear its head and foreshadow further chaos and collapse of what remains of our collective sense of social safety.
Why is this happening? Why does there seem to be such a focus on all the negative issues going on in the world with such little focus on what is going right? What does this do for our social cohesion, more so, what and how does this contribute to societal anxiety? And what can you, the parent do about it to help yourself and your child stay sane when chaos appears to be everywhere? Let's take a look.
So before we begin, I want to remind readers that I am not seeking by any means to solve the issue of, what I call societal anxiety. Rather, I am offering a plausible hypothesis from a theoretical standpoint, from one perspective out of many. So please keep that in mind when reading.
Ok, now what do I mean by societal anxiety? Basically, the idea behind the term suggests that society is a living, breathing, ever evolving entity, subject to the actions of its component parts, while also exerting upon them an influence of its own. In other words, society is the body which contains us humans, which keep it functioning. We contribute to its functioning by performing different roles whether in governing through laws, performing jobs, adhering to moral values, etc. We also change society as our values, beliefs, and in particular our collective consciousness changes. In turn, containing body of society provides the means through the nature of interaction of its component parts to benefit and thrive where they would not otherwise. There is much debate over which exerts more influence the whole or the component parts. A general consensus among social scientists is that people are indoctrinated into their society through socialization processes and rely on society working by making their contribution so society will work for them. If society does not work then it falls apart so we can reasonably argue society is in a state of hyper vigilance looking for external threats that would spell its downfall while its components are hyper vigilant as well to react and protect the society.
Applying a cognitive behavioral approach to the phenomenon we are exploring and envisioning the brain aspect of society, we see that it is reacting to the events that happen on an ideological (the thought part of the CBT model), emotional, and behavioral level with the events in the news being the trigger for society's anxiety. Let's take an example of the continued terrorist threat. Individually, we are worried and scared about the prospect of the possibility of a terrorist attack so applying the CBT model we are:
1: triggered by a news report of a terrorist attack
2: respond with automatic thoughts (and these are important because they are a key contributor in the overall perpetuation of the cycle) of not being safe
3: feelings of fear, anger, revenge, etc.
When experiencing such fearful situations, it is natural for a person to want to identify the source of the fear so they can determine whether to stick it out or run away (fight or flight). In today's technology driven society we are dependent more than ever of receiving information quickly to determine our reactions and our responses. The news provides it and fast. Society depends on us in the same manner of use for the CBT model. For instance, the same terrorist attack might for society look like:
1: trigger of terrorist attack in allied nation
2: automatic thought of must stand up to threat to ideology and/or they should not be allowed to do this
3: emotional response of fear, anger, vengeance.
Remember that each component drives the others and vice verse so an emotional response will demand a behavior and line of thinking in keeping with it, i.e. a feeling of vengeance for the terrorist attack might trigger a thought of "I must fight back", which might in turn lead to the behavior of launching a counter-terrorism operation. Alternatively, an emotional response of fear might lead to the thought of "I am not safe" and the behavior of putting sanctions on immigration or stepping up security to protect itself.
But how does society get to be so anxious if there are so many small component parts (we humans)? Let's look at a couple of more ideas.
If we take eminent sociologist Peter Berger's definition of society as being a "human product and nothing but a human product, that yet continuously acts upon its producers" (Berger, 1967), at face value then that would explain society's anxiety right there. We, the components of society, create it! So how does this happen? One suggestion can be found through examination of the concept of group cohesion, which explores four components of social attachment through: social relations, task relations, perceived unity, and emotions (Dyaram and Kamalanabhan, 2005). Social cohesion requires members of society feel not only a sense of safety, but mutual safety in that they will be safe and protected for on a part of that collective protective duty (task commitment). It also requires a level of "we-ness", which can be likened for simplicity sake to an "us vs. them" perspective. "We" feel safe and trust our group and we also feel attracted to those like us and those who provide the best care for our society. It might explain why such faith (or lack thereof once the system stops working) is placed in governing and ruling bodies. We feel safe, we are ok and we can function...but wait! uh oh! Here comes that threat to our collective safety and we need to protect ourselves! Time to analyze and examine the negative inputs! Also, group cohesion requires a certain level of moral sameness in the society and a collective confidence in the values and beliefs driving social actions. Threats to that cohesion must be dealt with in order to remove any possibility of disaster. We could say, therefore, that a terrorist attack represents a threat to that order we value so much by attacking us and our values. We need information to use and protect us and we need to have leadership to utilize the tools at our means to protect and execute our collective response to the perceived threat.
Let's also examine several acronyms working their way into society's anxiety: FUD and FOMO. A relative new comer to the acronym world, and originally developed as a tool for examining disinformation strategies in marketing, FUD stands for "fear, uncertainty, doubt". The concept behind FUD is that information being given and received is of a nature that is not taken within a wider context or benefit of all facts necessary to make an rational response. Information may be skewed, worded, altered, or not completely accurate and contribute to a lack of surety because the very necessitative purpose of the information, to determine a response, is in question. Then you bring in fact checking and re-checking, questioning, analyzing, trying to figure out what is wrong and then going back because it just does not seem correct. no wonder society could be viewed as having OCD!
For it's part, FOMO, the fear of missing out, plays a part by the very nature with which news is shared and spread. "EXLCUSIVE!" "BREAKING NEWS!" "THIS JUST IN!" "IF YOU DON'T GET IT YOU DON'T GET IT!" These are a few of the many hooks used to harness a sense of need to know and be part of the collective response to any threat by having the information just as it arrives. By not having the information, you are not informed, and you cannot do your part if you are not informed. Also, how can you adhere to your socially ordained values of protecting yourself, your loved ones, or your community if you do not know what is going on? The next big story could be, what with the global village we live in, the critical determinator in whether the threat becomes real or not. That is capitalized on in the headlines and in the presentation of news and its focus on the threats. Not knowing and missing out threatens group cohesion, which threatens the collective response, which destabilizes society's ability to protect itself, which is it's primary number one goal! Whew!
So anyway, at the end of the day, if we take a narrow approach to what is a giant mushroom of an issue, we may be getting at something. Society is anxious! What does that mean then if we are the creators and products of our society. Unfortunately, it likely means that we are also anxious, or more likely to be prey to anxiety. With the ease of access to information and the ease of responding, it's quite easy to be triggered, re-triggered, and keep the anxious cycle going as we look for validation and affirmation that our values are safe and our fears will not happen or will be not as bad if they do. There is a great deal you can do as a parent to help yourself and your children cope with society's anxiety. Please view my next post to find out more!