By and large, those of us in the west live in the least dangerous conditions in human history. Most of us have the basics: food, shelter, safety. We’re unlikely to be killed by wild animals (even other humans) and fatal infectious disease is rare. Life expectancy is long and few of us die in childbirth.
So why are rates of anxiety disorder high and rising? There’s probably a whole book to be written in answer to that question. But having less to fear doesn’t seem to have made us less fearful. Perhaps our evolutionary responses haven’t caught up with our changing circumstances. Perhaps we don’t quite believe our luck. Perhaps the rate of change itself makes us fearful.
I’m not seeking to make light of anxiety disorder. I know from experience how crippling and exhausting it is. But I am interested in what lies beneath these fears. What is it we’re all so frightened of?
The Wellcome Collection had a go at finding out in a recent interactive exhibition. People were asked to write down their greatest fears on a piece of paper, which they then crumpled and put in a bin, in a symbolic act of letting go. The curators then rooted around among the hundreds of responses to find out the most commonly-cited fears.
I don’t think the top five will surprise anyone. People fear death, being alone, losing someone, failure. And spiders, the only fear I don’t share. What strikes me is that they’re not irrational fears (except maybe the spiders). All of these experiences are inevitable. No-one can avoid confronting them at some point in their lives, or at the end of them. Perhaps our longer, safer lives even make some of these things seem more frightening, because we have less experience of them.
The Wellcome team did find some surprising fears. Vaginas, for example, and automatic doors (not together). Writing in public, which I think I can cope with. A sudden wine shortage, though. That’s a new fear to keep me await in the early hours.
Image: Wellcome Images, with CCL.