Discipled into Fear

Could Reverse Cognitive Behavior Therapy Be Driving Gen Z Depression and Anxiety?

I’m a recovered phobic. Not from any of the politically trendy, culture war-specific “phobias” intended to demonize libertarians, conservatives, and other reasonably sane people, but a real one. Acrophobia. It`s why I’m so short. If I’d grown to be much taller than I am (not), it would have been impossible for me to stand up without having a panic attack. At least any time before I was 17.

I had an irrational, unjustifiable fear of harm from a real threat: the possibility of falling from any height above about five feet. But that fear was not at all justified by most everyday circumstances I faced. Being afraid of falling while crossing a narrow bridge between two wind-swept mountain peaks? That would be rational. Being afraid of falling from the balcony above the elementary school library? Not rational. But my fear was paralyzing, embarrassing, and in some circumstances, downright crippling. It plagued me until my family, counselors, and I did something about it. 

What we did, I will discuss later, but first I want us to consider how such irrational anxieties are engendered.

Tracing Irrational Fears  

So where did my acrophobia come from? No idea. Maybe falling down the steep staircase in my grandparents` apartment building. The etiology of fear, or any mental disorder, is hard to pin down in many cases, but in the case of modern, fashionable fears, there has been considerable psychological research published in the last six years indicating a strong, likely causal link between mental disorders and left-wing political views on issues such as climate change and economics, just to name two oft-referenced ones.

In 2021, Scott McGreal, writing in Psychology Today, reported that an American study demonstrated  a link between high levels of neuroticism and liberal politics. Additional findings from a British study later that same year indicated a similar link between left-wing political views on economics and the environment (among other issues) and the occurrence of generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and phobias. One interesting aspect of these findings is that they run counter to the hypothesis that persons expressing generally conservative political views hold their views due to “increased threat sensitivity.” Another is that the researchers presenting these findings had no axe to grind against political liberals or leftists. Quite the reverse, in fact, and they were startled by their own findings.

These findings are of a piece with those of a much larger longitudinal study of the mental health of American adolescents over the years 2005 to 2018. That study showed both a marked increase of “internalized symptoms” of poor mental health and a consistent disparity between the mental health of self-reported teenage “liberals,” who consistently evinced greater levels of these internalized symptoms, and “conservatives,” who consistently evinced lower levels, even as mental health deteriorated for the entire age cohort as an aggregate. The study broke the subjects down by socioeconomic group, sex, race, and their parents’ educational level. The findings generally indicated that these social factors, along with parental ideology, had significant though differing influences driving the increase in anxiety, depression, and loneliness among those with “internalized symptoms.” The results showed white, liberal adolescent girls faring the worst in mental health. The findings of that study were buttressed by a 2020 Pew Research Center study that demonstrated, yet again, a correlation between liberal politics and mental health problems, prompting headlines to the effect of “white liberal girls in mental health crisis.”

The Chicken/Egg Problem

The link between left/progressive politics and anxiety, neurosis, phobias, depression, and loneliness has thus been demonstrated by multiple studies with high numbers of subjects (7,000 on the low end, 86,000 on the high) that were conducted by researchers without any discernable anti-liberal bias over the course of 18 years. The question that arises from the data is: are people made more mentally ill by left/progressive ideology, or are mentally ill people drawn by their own tendencies to buy into left/progressive ideology?

Matt Yglesias weighed that relationship in his Substack entry on the topic earlier this year and made this observation:

Some of it might be selection effect, with progressive politics becoming a more congenial home for people who are miserable. But I think some of it is poor behavior by adult progressives, many of whom now valorize depressive affect as a sign of political commitment. 

Some of this “poor behavior by adult progressives” was identified by Jonathan Haidt in the article "Why The Health of Liberal Girls Sank First and Fastest." Citing his work with Greg Lukianoff of F.I.R.E. (Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression), Haidt finds in the speech codes and political indoctrination of universities a mechanism of “reverse cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)” that, instead of helping young people dispassionately identify negative turns of thought such as, anxiety, fear, and rage in a healthy way, encourages them to interpret reality in ways that fuel destructive mental patterns. His description and assessment are worth quoting here:

In CBT you learn to recognize when your ruminations and automatic thinking patterns exemplify one or more of about a dozen “cognitive distortions,” such as catastrophizing, black-and-white thinking, fortune telling, or emotional reasoning. Thinking in these ways causes depression, as well as being a symptom of depression. Breaking out of these painful distortions is a cure for depression.

Haidt recounts how, beginning in 2013, Lukianoff identified tendencies toward catastrophizing and emotional reasoning as characteristic drivers of progressive dogmas on university campuses and of campus-left efforts to censor non-left speakers. Haidt describes the insight as follows:

Greg hypothesized that if colleges supported the use of these cognitive distortions, rather than teaching students skills of critical thinking (which is basically what CBT is), then this could cause students to become depressed. Greg feared that colleges were performing reverse CBT.

CBT, Lukianoff reports, helped him break out of his own mental cycle of depression fueled by cognitive distortions, even as campus progressives were inflicting those cognitive distortions on students as normative. This could occur, for example, as a teen’s parents teach her such progressive articles of faith as critical race theory or gender theory that cast the world around her as a threatening and evil place, or a preacher telling a student from the pulpit that "We're all the last generation" (link in German) in the context of doomsday environmentalist catastrophism. In these cases, authority figures are discipling young people, young women most of all, into fear.

Diagnosis is Easy – Treatment, Not So Much

So, if the problem is an induced set of anxiety disorders, treating it would require breaking cycles of catastrophism, emotional thinking, and, in the social dimension, Manichean thinking – that is, seeing the world in simplistic black-and-white sets of “victim/oppressor” or “exploiter/exploited” categories. Breaking out of cycles of fear and anxiety can be difficult but is possible; I am no longer an acrophobe, so I know whereof I speak. The process of escaping the hold of that irrational fear required noticing my reactions, overriding them, and developing a mastery over them.

Those who helped me best in recovering from acrophobia were not the people who encouraged me to hold on to my fear or told me it was justified. Quite the opposite. They were those who taught me to see my fear as the crippling, irrational thing that it was. They were the ones convincing or coercing me to walk out on catwalks, go up escalators, stand by the open side of the glass-enclosed elevator, and so forth until I saw that standing next to the safety rail did not mean I was about to fall to my grisly death.

In keeping with this successful treatment model, then, we should challenge climate doomsaying, for example, with facts, starting perhaps with the relentlessly poor track record of predictions by the environmental left. This is one way to break down that particular anxiety. There are plenty of resources for this online, from Michael Shellenberger, Alex Epstein, the Mises Institute, Reasons to Believe, and numerous other thinkers, researchers, scholars, and institutes that cut through the hair-on-fire hysteria typical of political discourse (and therefore thinking) today. These offer a balanced, thoughtful response to this particular form of politically driven anxiety. This may take time but helping people to see issues clearly helps them to overcome being dominated by fear.

Further Reading

is a professional translator, missionary, and writer living in Germany, where he works with several different ministries, and lives in a Christian intentional community. He has written academic articles on medieval literature and culture and has published essays in Salvo, First Things, and Boundless. He is a native of Indiana.

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