Zsuzsanna Chappell argues that the transformation of fear into anxiety is another example of how the concerns of some members of society are systematically dismissed.

I originally wrote this post just before I had surgery. Everyone was telling me not to be anxious, as it would all turn out fine, and when I said I wasn’t anxious, they looked surprised. I had to explain that I was afraid: not of the surgery itself, but that it would not work.

In our society we tend to be a lot more comfortable with anxiety than with fear. We talk about climate anxiety and treat is as something pathological. But is it really unreasonable to be terrified of catastrophic climate change when scientists and the media tell us daily that it is coming? Even more starkly, imagine counseling the contestants of the Hunger Games about their anxiety about their upcoming ordeal. Somehow, it does not seem appropriate.

On a day-to-day basis we ignore many of our fears in order to be able to continue living. This is similar to the way in which people with all kinds of chronic illnesses, including chronic low-intensity pain, learn to live with their condition, so they can stay functional. This doesn’t mean that the pain and the cause of the pain goes away, it’s just that people muddle through, somehow. Many people in our society have well-founded fears around systemic issues such as economic uncertainty, precarious employment, discrimination and so on. As these fears reflect ongoing issues, we get used to living with them.

Image of tunnel in black and white.

Why do we insist on sometimes calling these fears “anxiety” instead? Here I offer a couple of tentative, very speculative suggestions using the following image: maybe the light at the end of the tunnel is definitely a train, and you are standing in the middle of the tracks with nowhere to go.

(1) The first reason for focusing on anxiety in favour of fear may be a form liberal self-sufficiency or toxic positivity: we know there is a train coming, but we suggest that it is the individual’s responsibility to pull themselves together already, stop feeling so “anxious” and just get on with it. “You could surely climb up the tunnel wall and hang from the ceiling, yes?” Usually shouted in from people outside the tunnel through a megaphone.

(2) Our focus on anxiety could also be due to epistemic injustice. This is what philosophers call cases where people think that certain kinds of people different from themselves (women, children, people of colour, disabled people, poor people) are just not very good at knowing what the world is really like, what is true or false. These people might say: “I can see you are distressed, but is there really a train? Are you really in a tunnel? I am not sure you are quite getting this right, dear.” These people appear as presences next to you, but have a machine for teleporting out, should there be an actual train.

(3) Others might suggest that you have train-phobia. While in this case the term used is not “anxiety”, I am including it here as we sometimes use the word “phobia” in a way that minimises the fears of others. (We also use it in cases where we want to soften that what we are concerned with is just simply hate and nastiness, as in homo-phobia, Islamo-phobia or trans-phobia.) You might then be told: “Being hit by a train is a perfectly natural part of life. Everyone else is being hit by train. They are just fine and live happily. Stop being train-phobic.” These people send you the link for the online phobia-solving-training-course.

The transformation of fear into anxiety is thus is another example of how the concerns of some members of society are systematically dismissed. Finally, fear is sometimes medicalised into some form of anxiety-disorder. Which does a disservice to people experiencing actual anxiety disorders as well as the people standing on the tracks in the tunnel. CBT doesn’t work when there’s an actual train coming.

My current research interest is in ethical issues related to mental illness and psychiatry. In the past I have written on democratic theory and deliberative democracy. Currently I am a Visiting Researcher at the Sowerby Project on Philosophy and Medicine, King’s College London.