Oh the anxiety…?

Today I came across this LSE Impact Blog piece discussing the anxiety experienced by early career researchers about writing up their field work findings, and introducing the Writing across Boundaries initiative that has supported such researchers to find and develop tools for dealing with anxiety that comes with the territory (it seems, as a matter of fact). While the post does provide evidence that participants did in the end see “anxiety as a creative ally”, which in its creative sense highlights that anxiety can be a powerful force driving you forward, but I can’t help but wonder if we are all too eager to brand anxiety as something that is a natural (and even a good) part of our working environment; as long as well have the tools to manage anxiety, it becomes something positive and separates the successful ones from those who will falter under pressure? While I too have personal experiences where ‘deadlining’ and other forms of external pressure have enabled me to finish a piece of work, and perhaps done a better job had I just been left to my own devices, I would not say that it was the anxiety that sparked creativity; rather it may have streamlined the process in setting my priorities straight and eliminated procrastination. Branding anxiety as a positive and creative force can be dangerous as well…who decides what is a healthy dose of anxiety?

An article in the Guardian reveals some statistics on mental health and isolation problems in the academia, stating that feeling overworked and isolated are the major causes of mental health issues and anxiety among academics. And the problem is getting worse. These issues are explored further in an interesting piece from Rosalind Gill (available here), that starts with a conversation between the author and a university staff member…the conversation is revealing, and slightly haunting. The article writes: “What would it mean to turn our lens upon our own labour processes, organisational governance and conditions of production? […] How might we make links between macro-organisation and institutional practices on the one hand, and experiences and affective states on the other, and open up an exploration of the ways in which these may be gendered, racialised and classed?” The problems of anxiety are internalised and normalised…they have been silenced as a part of a larger problem that lies beyond the individual.

So who has the responsibility over anxiety? Irrespective of the way we view anxiety (as a positive force or a problem) we might come to the same conclusions; that it is time pressures, expectations and isolation that make us feel anxious. Vital difference however lies in how we approach the cure to anxiety and who has the ultimate responsibility to deal with it. When anxiety is seen as something positive, the responsibility to deal with the consequences lies with the individual…you are anxious because you simply cannot manage your time better. But if we see anxiety as a negative force, a problem, the analysis on the causes will deepen and require a more detailed look into the root causes of why people feel pressured by time. Is it really poor time management, or unrealistic deadlines? When responsibility over the problem is collectivised by problemasing it as a larger phenomenon, we all must assume responsibility over solving it. But if we see it as a creative force that individuals need to just learn to manage, the responsibility for solving the problem is individualised and anxiety becomes branded as an opportunity wasted; and the only person to be blamed is you.

I suppose the real question I am thinking of, is what has led us to live and work in environments that feed our anxieties? Should we really be living in such a world? And what can we do to change it? As a PhD student my experiences still remain limited, narrow and somewhat green to what lies ahead of me if I decide to go down the path of developing an academic career. I am not sure if I have ever felt stress in my life, not in the way that some people describe it as a sensation and a state where your life becomes so jumbled up in the demands others make from you, that it ends up consuming you and affecting all other areas of your life, and your relationships with other people. So it worries me that the world where anxiety is normalised as an individual character fault might be what modern universities are heading towards…or being driven by larger forces of marketisation and neoliberal values of efficiency and improvement through competition. If I’ve never felt real all consuming stress, how will I cope?

While my thoughts and opinions above may not be the most impressive ones, nor well refined, I do feel that it is still a conversation that ought to be had. By everyone. Openly. Rosalind Gill has this to say, which echo some of the thoughts and feeling going around in my head…”[…] our failure to look critically at ‘our own back yard’, with the broad aim of understanding the relationship between economic and political shifts, transformations in work, and psychosocial experiences – and starting a conversation about how we might resist.

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