Wildfires are raging and ice caps are melting. Superpowers are rising and economies are falling. Our world is coated in plastic and ecosystems are dying. Threat of nuclear war is looming on the horizon.
These events can cause some people to feel panicked, fearful and anxious; it can be characterized as apocalyptic anxiety.
Apocalyptic anxiety isn’t a defined medical diagnosis. According to Psychology professor Margo Watt at St. Francis Xavier University, there hasn’t been empirical research on this topic.
“It’s similar to existential, doomsday or nuclear anxiety,” she says. “There is no diagnostic category for ‘apocalyptic anxiety’ although such concerns could fit with and/or feed into other types of anxiety, such as generalized anxiety disorder.”
Today there are many reasons to be anxious; the current world order makes some feel like the apocalypse is one of them.
Doomsday status: pending
The potential of an apocalypse dates back thousands of years says Jonathan Vance, a professor at Western University who teaches a course called Zombie Apocalypse: Panic and Paranoia in Human History.
“The year 1000 generated a huge amount of anxiety because it was supposed to be the second coming of Christ and was supposed to be when the world was going to end,” says Vance. “And so since then apocalypticism and its anxieties are almost a constant” says Vance of western cultures.
In the modern era, there are many different sources of a potential apocalypse and there are so many different ways we could imagine human civilization coming to an end.
The year 2000 became known as Y2K and conspiracies explained the world would come to an end at the start of a new millennium.
On Dec. 21, 2012 many believed the apocalypse was impending, according to the Mayan calendar.
Conspiracy theories have always been popular because they allow us to see a complicated situation in simplistic terms. Vance says some psychologists would say our fascination with the apocalypse is almost hardwired into our brains.
“One of the more common suggestions is that western societies tend to have a reflective self-loathing, so we’re fascinated by the apocalypse, and frightened by it, but secretly we believe our society deserves to be wiped out,” he says.
These feelings are different from group to group. It depends whether people are trying to escape the apocalypse and survive, or trying to come to terms with their destruction, running towards it as it may lead to a better form of existence, says Vance.
When fear takes over
David Smith (who asked for his real name not be used, to avoid the stigma associated with sharing his story) found himself deep in conspiracy theories and apocalyptic anxiety in September 2009 at the end of his studies in performing arts in British Columbia. The Peterborough, Ont. native said it was brought on in part by heavy cannabis use.
“I was high for two years straight.”
Smith also experimented with other drugs MDMA, ecstasy and magic mushrooms. When Smith’s paranoia developed, he got into the unending realm of online conspiracy theories.
Years before, when he was a small child, Smith remembers walking into a corner store somewhere.
“There was a rag tabloid news at my eye level with a picture of Jesus and lightning with a huge caption of the world ending. That was years ago, but it stuck.”
Then came Y2K, then 9/11 and the conspiracy theories started to make sense.
Smith says at the time he had been consumed by paranoia. He came to this idea there was a small, select group of powerful bankers and politicians that were planning a mass genocide to reduce the population by 90 per cent, via vaccines, poison in water and food, chemtrails and eventually, concentration camps.
“Total Hitler-style Holocaust on a global scale. And yes, I’m talking Illuminati, one world government, new world order,” he says.
He checked into a psychiatric unit where doctors identified this is as psychosis or a psychotic break/psychotic episode, which doesn’t define the patient as a psychopath.
“I had an isolated episode where I couldn’t distinguish fact from fiction. Luckily, I got over it because I almost took my own life.”
After many years indulged in conspiracy theories coupled with heavy drug use, Smith believed the earth was coming to an end.
“I was 23 at the time, which made so much sense,” he says. “You know, 23? It all pieced itself together to fabricate this ultimate understanding that the world goes through cycles, and there would be a near extinction of human beings, much like what happened to the dinosaurs. It was inevitable, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.”
Today Smith lives and works in Toronto and is stable with the help of medication and years of seeing a psychiatrist, therapists and a caseworker. “I got through it.”
An anxious world
Some would argue we’ve been living in the age of anxiety for decades, Vance says.
“We’re in a state of perma-anxiety, which means intense panics are relatively easy to trigger.”
Apocalypticism, today, ebbs and flows through the World Wide Web quickly and efficiently. The mass media spew messages from all directions. Sometimes good, sometimes not. Bad news sells. Good news is less interesting.
“We know more than we ever have before about everything,” says Vance. “We are surrounded by communication media that make it much easier to spread falsehoods and to spread panics and to spread lies and to spread untruths.”
For example, it’s common knowledge that Winston Churchill, the 1940s British Prime Minister, famously said, “a lie makes it halfway around the world, before the truth gets out of bed.” Even though he never actually said it.
People who suffer from this kind of anxiety often find it difficult to picture their future and retreat from discourse around current events.
Emma McGugan is a student at the University of King’s College and has apocalyptic anxiety. She says a lot of people are predisposed to this sort of thing.
“When I was really young I had a lot of fears surrounding myself and my family dying. I used to go around every night when I was younger with my mom and make sure the stove was off, and the doors were locked. I did that every night –– every morning. It started when I was probably eight.”
Over time these fears caused McGugan insomnia.
“At first I was scared of being murdered at night and then as I started thinking that’s not reasonable, it turned into more what was reasonable, and I was like oh the apocalypse –– that’s reasonable.”
McGugan says things such as nuclear warfare, the environment and corrupt politicians cause feelings of panic and anxiety.
“There are many conversations I have to tend to avoid but a lot I feel very passionate about,” says McGugan. “I’ve left restaurants before because I can’t talk about this.”
McGugan has trouble viewing her future and must ground her thinking in the present.
“I have to kind of censor myself and be like yeah, the apocalypse is pending, but it’s about right now.”
The power of fear
Fear, anxiety, panic and paranoia are enemies of rational thought, says Vance.
“Fear is what allows the irrational response to win out. And it’s more likely to win out, if everyone around you is freaked out at the same time.”
Fear is powerful. Fear convinces you that you can’t do anything. Excessive fear or panic is negative, especially when we direct our fear to the wrong thing.
People have been paralyzed by fear of terrorism in North America for years, and billions of dollars have been spent to dilute this anxiety.
Vance says to not let your rational mind be sidelined by fear.
“Don’t build up this mental image of some shadowy middle-aged terrorist who’s going to lay waste to your town. Direct your energy in a proper way,” he says. “If you look at what’s being spent on the war on terrorism because people are freaked out, imagine what would happen if you spent that money on mental health or cancer research.”
When turning fear around, fear can motivate us to act. Fear can organize millions of people around the world to strike for climate inaction and demand change.
“In apocalypse anxieties don’t let your fear that it’s all coming to an end convince you that you can’t do anything and convince you to withdraw from meaningful discourse in society,” says Vance. “Maybe it’s going to come to an end, maybe it isn’t, but go down fighting at least.”
Thoughts such as these can be overwhelming and debilitating. Having conversations about intense anxieties is a first step. If you think you may suffer from apocalyptic anxiety there’s support and services such as psychological counselling, mindfulness and online resources. Ementalhealth.ca is an online resource, which guides you to counselling services within Canada.