Social Anxiety and Animals (Especially Those We Call Humans)

I cannot stress this enough, not only on my behalf but also in the interest of all who share these descriptions. Those with social anxiety are anxious in social situations. Introverts lose energy in social situations. Neither of those things is misanthropy. It’s quite possible to love people and see good in them while having social anxiety and/ or being an introvert.

That said: I have always preferred animals. They don’t have the same affect on my energy level as humans, and while anxiety is present it’s a different sort of thing.

I expect most animals will do me harm in the right circumstance, which is a major deviation from social anxiety (there I mostly worry about being judged). It’s not that I worry the animal might kill me necessarily, though that’s true of some species, but rather the simple risk of injury as I do have that pesky medical phobia. Injury means medical attention.

Recently, I have been giving some different thought to this. With animals the anxiety comes from a sense that I will do something wrong that causes the animal to react as anyone familiar with the animal would expect. That is, the injury would result from my ignorance rather than some uncharacteristic act by the animal.

It serves me well in some respects. I recently had an incident with my corgi,  Pym. He was laying on our bed and I leaned over to kiss his head as I’ve done a million times. In leaning over I applied a little too much compression and startled him, so he turned up at my face. He didn’t bite, but his mouth was open so I caught a few teeth and, more severely, bore the brunt of the impact with the bridge of my nose. It wasn’t a serious injury, but I’ve played enough sports to know what comes next. I covered my nose and ran to the sink, cleaned myself up, and went back to bed. No anger with my pup because it wasn’t his fault. I actually enjoy that even in a situation that tends to trigger my anxiety I have the emotional intelligence not to lash out.

Because that’s the thing, right? It’s an expected response. Animals are survivors. They do what is necessary to survive in the hunter-gatherer sense. They eat when hungry. They fight when necessary. Anything beyond that is a waste of precious resources in the wild, and even our domestic animals have those instincts. There are exceptions, but conservation of resources is the broad rule.

Then I thought about humans. We’re also animals. We just think of ourselves as more civilised and evolved because of our intelligence and social structure. Other animals are social, but not with the viral efficiency of humanity.

What I realised is that my big concern (problem?) with humans is that we will do terrible things without a survival imperative. People do terrible things because they’re bored. It makes them feel good. We have a host of reasons that have little to do with our survival, seemingly running contrary to that most broad rule of nature.

I’m not suggesting that people are terrible, just that some people sometimes do terrible things. That’s fair, right?

And what strikes me from there is that so much of it seems to derive from the act of socialisation itself.

People are quick to blame mental health when someone does something egregiously bad, but people with mental health issues are far, far more likely to be victims than perpetrators. What perpetrators have in common is a deficiency in socialisation. We have these societal standards: laws, mores, folk ways, taboos. These people deviate from them either situationally or as a matter of general deficiency.

We have separate issues resulting from inequality in those societal standards either in how they are recorded or how they are applied when it comes to people identified as members of a particular group, but that’s beyond the scope of this post. Just felt compelled to highlight it.

The irony then is that the mechanism meant to elevate us “above the beasts” has made us more wild and unruly than the beasts. Our collective inability to define society and then embrace all members of the species into that fold is our greatest enemy. Most existential problems facing the average person are human-made, or at least exacerbated by humans.

When I look at mental health, I see two major camps: neuro-typical and neuro-divergent. Everyone has mental health, but for many it crosses over into mental illness. The diagnostic line for many (all? I’m not a DSM expert cover to cover) is that the symptoms “impact one’s life.” The degree of symptoms severity necessary to diagnose one person as mentally ill will differ from the next. I may have substantial anxiety, but if it does not interfere with my life then I am a neuro-typical with anxiety. As soon as it starts to disrupt a healthy life, I become someone with an anxiety issue.

On the one hand, I think mental health diagnoses are increasing for two major medical reasons: 1) the stigma is decreasing and more people seek treatment, and 2) while the field is still far from perfect the understanding of mental health continues to increase, so we’re better about defining and identifying it.

On the other hand, I think mental health diagnoses are also increasing because it does relate so closely to the concept of society. There is neuro-typical and neuro-divergent. The neuro-typical people are “normal” in the eyes of society. They function. The neuro-divergent struggle in life because of their mental health issue. It becomes neuro-divergent the moment it impacts one’s ability to engage with society.

What I’m suggesting is, what if part of the increase in mental health diagnoses is that as society (the institutions, laws, and so forth, which are a legacy of generations rather than the product of only the current population) evolved, it became more exclusive? Mental health diagnoses increase because more people are finding it impossible, or at least Herculean, to engage with society on a regular basis?

Again, this is not to say that people are bad. I think people are generally good. Part of what we have to overcome is generations of work in which we had no part – lots of plates are spinning and we have to address them all together because changing one impacts countless others. We have to overcome our own psychology – as someone recently shared: “Your brain is there to keep you alive, not to keep you happy.” It can be quite stupid and foolish despite its marvellous complexity. And we have the rotten apples.

The more we improve society to eliminate non-human existential threats (look at the general gains in education, hygiene, healthcare, and so forth over time), the more we seem to create a society riddled with human-caused existential threats. We still have homelessness and hunger. Certain people die from preventable disease because of who they are or where they live, and our medical gains birthed superbugs. People must choose between food and live-saving drugs. These are human problems now, not the environmental ones against which society was meant to buffer.

I won’t speak for other places, but as an American consumerism is a necessary part of life. While prices increase and wages stagnate, if we do not spend money in our culture the economy will slow. That has a real impact on the daily lives of Americans. Your housing costs will increase. Medical costs will increase. The necessities become more inaffordable if we do not engage in enough frivolity as well, and the current economic circumstance already strains that balance for many.

Anxiety, depression, eating disorders, personality disorders…so many of these mental health conditions have triggers relating back to the individual trying to exist within that societal framework. I think it’s one of the major reasons why recovery is such a challenge – the answer in many cases is, “Learn better ways to cope in this world because who you are as a person right now is not fitting neatly into that structure.”

It’s not that those of us with mental health issues are “less than,” inferior, not enough, or any other adjective for broken. Millions of years of evolution have led to who you are today. You’re a biological miracle. The issue is this artificial thing we built that has also evolved on its own. It’s like any two people. Some won’t get along. This thing humanity has been building is as imperfect as the people who have been building it. It does not get along with a whole host of people, and that’s a problem because that is literally its only job.

Wolves are social creatures. They work in packs. If the pack itself were to become a stressor or danger to individual members, it ceases to serve its function.

That’s where humans are. We’ve developed a social system for survival that is killing its members because it’s not set up in a way that uses the individual strengths of those members for the collective good. It defines a collective good and then demands members match those strengths. Domesticated to the point of savagery.

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