angst |aNG(k)st, äNG(k)st| noun

1) a feeling of deep anxiety or dread, typically an unfocused one about the human condition or the state of the world in general: adolescent angst.

2) (informal) a feeling of persistent worry about something trivial: “my hair causes me angst.”

ORIGIN 1920s: from German, ‘fear, anxiety.’

I really hate this word.

It’s not so much the word, itself: ‘angst’ … the word is like a knife … it has a feeling of doom, in a tiny little package, like ‘hate’, or ‘death’ … like much of the rest of the German language (no offense intended, Teutonics) it has a sound of harshness, of finality … angst … angst … Angst!

It’s like the bam, bam, bam of a hammer driving the last nail in the coffin of your happiness.

So, given how appropriate it is to dictionary definition number one, above, and my obvious enjoyment of the feel of the word, what could possibly be my problem with it?  Simple:  it’s definition number two, above.  More and more the term is being used to make fun of, or trivialize, someone’s anxieties, fears, worries … to make them sound ridiculous, like no sane person need fear that sort of thing …

First of all, yes, I acknowledge that some anxieties can seem pretty ridiculous. If someone is so deeply concerned with the impending death of our sun, despite the fact that that event will occur some 5 billion years from now, most of us would consider it a pretty silly thing to be worried about …

Except that, if someone is worried about that, the chances are fair he has some mental illness that drives that worry to the very top of his priority list – most likely displacing a worry far more immediate, relevant, and potent, if no less as unsolvable – and that makes it every bit as worthy of taking seriously as your worry about your job, paying the mortgage, or the decay of your relationship!  Not the event, itself, but the worry that’s associated with it …

Worry does bad things to human beings. We aren’t designed to be constantly afraid, or worried. It’s a state called, by some physicians, “Hyper-Alertness”, or “hypervigilance”. Generally, it’s associated with PTSD – most especially with battle-fatigue … when your life absolutely depends on being able to react quickly to a threat, you begin to search for threats – and you begin to do it constantly, 24/7 …

Immediately after his 3rd tour of duty in Viet Nam, my dad was assigned to Kaneohe Bay Marine Corps Air Station, in Hawaii.  We all flew out to join him, and, on the first night, we were in a high-rise hotel, discussing what to have for dinner, while my dad showered in the next room …

In the alley behind the Hotel, someone set off a string of fire-crackers … we heard a heavy thump, followed by an indescribable scrabbling sound coming from the bedroom … I found my dad down behind the bed, naked, ripping at the carpeting covering the kick-board under it – designed to keep people from accidentally kicking their belongings under the beds …

When he became aware of me, he stopped, and got up, looking shame-faced … his finger-tips were raw and bleeding. He said, as if it explained everything, “I couldn’t get under the bed …”

A US Marine NCO, with 2o years in the Corps, and 3 combat tours under his belt. In a luxury hotel in Waikiki. So terrified by a sound similar to gunfire, that he ripped his fingers to shreds trying to escape.  He didn’t stop to identify the noise. Didn’t consider his location, or the unlikelihood of a firefight there. Didn’t run to get his family under cover. The sound of the firecrackers had utterly bypassed all of his higher reasoning – had gone straight to the center of his brain:  the Limbic System, one of the most ancient structures of the human cortex … the “Crocodile Brain” some have called it.  It manages our emotions, especially our most primitive responses. More specifically, that sound had activated the Amygdala … a structure near the center of the Limbic system that seems, among other things, to govern our “Fear Response”  or “Fight or Flight” reactions …

“Fight or Flight” is a fairly simple choice, made at a nearly unconscious level;  if a threat is perceived, there’s a choice: rip it the fuck to shreds, or run squealing till you’ve left it in the dust.  Lots of calculations go on in the split-second or so that is all you have to deal with the situation:  is the threat something I can attack and defeat, is it something I can only hope to outrun, is it something that must be hidden from?

The trouble is, our poor Amygdala, and the other structures that take part in this process, were never designed for the sorts of things human beings have to be afraid of now!  They were designed for dealing with Cave Bears, and rattle-snakes, and crocodiles, and angry husbands, and the rotten branch, or thin sheet of ice that you’ve just put all your weight on … Clear and Present Dangers, to use the language of our Intelligence Community.

Our brains were never designed to react to a storm of arrows from the shadow of a forest, let alone a sniper a thousand yards away, hidden under camouflage!  They were never designed to cope with strafing aircraft, land-mines, or a hand-grenade from an unseen enemy …

Beyond combat, though, think of the things in your daily life that are a definite threat, but not one our distant ancestors ever had to face:  drunk drivers, Airplane crashes, toxic waste, loss of work, crashing stocks, increasing interest rates … then think about all the stuff that our ancestors may have not known they were in danger from, or didn’t live long enough to experience: Cancer, Heart-Attacks, Strokes, asbestos, swine flu, plague, earthquakes, super-volcanos, serial killers …

Leave a man in combat – against enemies he can barely detect – for too long, and one consequence is the “Thousand Yard Stare”, a sign of battle fatigue and a precursor to PTSD.  This is what it looks like:

images-1images tumblr_lephi0YG6b1qaeizvo1_500

It’s there. It can be seen. Diagnosed. It’s as clear as that. Can’t mistake it.

What does it look like in a civilian, though? What does it look like when the threat isn’t bullets and bombs, but the loss of your job, your house, your belongings, the ability to care for your family? What does it look like when you’re afraid you’re losing your mind? When the stress of keeping up the appearance of normality finally becomes too much?

It looks like worry. It looks like exhaustion. It looks like pain. It looks like depression.

And none of it is any less severe, or any less damaging than battle fatigue – it just works more slowly.


~ by dourscot on July 3, 2013.

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