In 1958, Joseph Brady published the results of a provocative experiment, called “Ulcers in ‘Executive’ Monkeys." Brady delivered rhesus monkeys a painful, though not fatal, electric shock once every 20 seconds. The unfortunate monkeys were able to stop the shock by pressing a lever, but only after it was administered. They were subjected to these harsh conditions for six hours, and then allowed to rest for six hours. After a few days, some of the monkeys died from acute stomach ulcers. Anxiety did them in. Brady then changed the conditions of the experiment. Electrodes were attached to a pair of monkeys, and only one of them the “executive monkey” could press a lever that would cancel the painful shock for both. Four “executive monkeys” died from an ulcer; the passive monkeys emerged unscathed. This experiment would not have passed an ethics committee these days. Moreover, it was later criticized for methodological reasons. Yet it opened our minds to the possible links between stress and anxiety.
Anxiety is the inevitable outcome of the relations between a master and a slave. The master has requirements and expectations of the slave, and the latter, unable to fulfill them completely, is gripped by stress. A manager demands that his or her employee finish an important task by the end of the week. The employee knows that it’s nearly impossible to meet the deadline. There are not enough hours in the day to go through all the files before the meeting, not enough hours to find the elusive software bug, not enough hours to finish writing the article. Driven by stress, the employee skips lunch breaks, loses sleep, and forgoes a long afternoon with his spouse and kids. Romance is sacrificed for utilitarianism. As the deadline approaches, the employee is uptight, works much harder, gives up all leisure time, and abandons all forms of relaxation. Finally, the task is somehow completed on time, but the worker collapses. The manager, too, buckles under the load. Managers have their own taskmasters who demand results. To make things harder for them, they also depend on the performance of their subordinates. As Brady showed, as the rank gets higher, so does the mounting pressure, and its costs.
The master is multifaceted. He appears in the form of boss, father, law, culture or divinity: from the biblical lord God the judge who metes out stern punishment to those who did not meet his expectations to the father in Kafka’s “The Judgment,” who orders his ever-disappointing son to jump from a bridge to his death. In our time, the power of the God-master and that of the patriarch have receded somewhat, but not the expectations the master has from his slave. The master has simply adopted a new face.
In the modern city, the dominant culture imposes a strict order on people that they must obey. Granted, there are many positive aspects to life in a big metropolis. “City air makes man free,” wrote the sociologist Max Weber, by which he meant that the city affords its residents freedom to form their identity. In his book “Triumph of the City” (Penguin paperback edition, 2012), Edward Glaeser, an economics professor from Harvard, argues that the city is humanity’s greatest invention. It “makes us richer, smarter, greener, healthier, and happier.” But the urban environment is also fraught with pressing demands for a way of life that carries a high price tag. It stretches to the maximum the supply of gratifications that are potentially available to the individual, though in reality most are beyond his reach. It creates an unbridgeable disparity between what is promised or expected, and what can actually be exploited. And as the disparities in the mind between expectation and realization grow wider, the tension, too, becomes more intolerable, engendering anxiety.
Modern cities compress together innumerable figures of attractive, seductive men and women; restaurants, bars and cafés open on their avenues; luxury cars cruise their streets; and they ostentatiously display an endless list of shows, films and cultural events. The city literally floods the senses. The urban dweller is comparable to Mickey Mouse in Disney’s adaptation of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” in the movie “Fantasia.” In that masterly segment, Mickey is unable to stop the enchanted broom from drawing water from the well and spilling it out in the room. Terrified, he smashes the broom with an ax, breaking it in two. Alas, each piece springs to life and continues to bring water, now faster and even more frenetically. Think about how emails pile up in your account and how impossible it is to slow down or stop the flooding of your mailbox. Mickey loses control completely. Luckily for him, the sorcerer returns and restores order by a miraculous intervention.
The spell of the metropolis is similar except that here the individual can do little to remain in control: the city moves fast and almost without stopping. It is hypnotizing to observe the congested markets in Cairo; to feel the explosive pace of Shanghai; to witness the dynamic innovativeness of Paris; to experience the ever-growing web of possibilities in New York. But it is impossible to hold on to them: they are not amenable to containment or possession. As Michel Houellebecq succinctly described in “The Possibility of an Island”: “To increase desires to an unbearable level while making the fulfillment of them more and more inaccessible: this was the single principle on which Western society was based” (Vintage International paperback).
The Zen monastery non-option
None of this was news to Sigmund Freud. For him, culture is the master, and the slaves are you and me. In his work “Civilization and its Discontents,” he argued that modern culture demands the restraint and taming of the individual instinct in favor of the general social order. This personal renunciation makes possible cultural creation, but at the price of sacrificing the individual’s personal happiness by subordinating it. The suppression of the individual’s desires and instinctual needs gives rise to a general condition of continuous, irresolvable neurosis, frustration and conflict.
These are the specific terms of the transaction: civilization dictates its laws to the individual, which he must obey or suffer exclusion. He must work, defer his gratifications, repress his primitive yearnings, obey restrictions and prohibitions, save his earnings and remain hygienic and disciplined. In return, civilization offers a few pleasures in which he can share, such as a regular sex life through the mechanism of marriage; food and shelter that are supplied regularly in return for hard work; and relative security. In the contemporary city, whose allurements are profusely scattered and overt, chronic satisfaction of pleasure is a cultural imperative. Repression becomes far more difficult. The result is a constantly rising level of anxiety. Everyone is neurotic to one degree or another: pressured, frustrated, irritable, tired.
What allays anxiety? Wherever you find anxiety, people will be more aggressive, but they will also seek ways to reduce it. Anxiety-derived aggression is in our genes. We share it with other mammals. In an astonishingly original study, researchers used the psychiatric manual of disorders (DSM-IV) to diagnose the behavior of chimpanzees that underwent trauma as a result of incarceration, abuse or participation in experiments. Most of them were found to be suffering from symptoms of anxiety and depression that are found in human beings, and, similar to humans, they reacted by displaying open anger and aggression or by avoiding activity.
To cope with anxiety in depth, it is patently necessary to treat its source. Possibly, separating from urban life for a few years to enter a Zen monastery, work at gardening and calligraphy while engaging in koan practice will help. Alternatively, the urban environment can be abandoned completely in favor of rural life and nature. However, though such trends exist, fewer people worldwide choose to pursue them.
The body as refuge
Another, more subversive way is to challenge the infrastructure of the master-slave relationship itself. According to the original perception of Hegel, the German philosopher, the slave covets the feeling of freedom. One day he musters sufficient courage to fight for an end to enslavement. He has had enough. He risks his life in the course of the struggle but, if successful, overcomes the master and earns freedom. In a similar fashion, we can try to deconstruct the relations of authority and the distance between masters and slaves. For example, in anthroposophic educational institutions, the conventional hierarchical model is abandoned and replaced by a more democratic structure. However, in most schools the traditional structure persists, and when the principal in a regular hierarchic framework becomes angry and dissatisfied, the subordinates pupils, teachers and parents alike become frightened, even terrified.
In our era we are also witnessing a reversal of relations: places in which authority collapsed and the struggle ended with the slave becoming master. In this regard, adolescents and children are masters in the new order. However, even here the inescapable result is anxiety, this time parental anxiety not of the overseeing, punitive father, but that stemming from the loss of authority and means of restraint and from the confidence of how to be a good parent. What emerges is a relentless fear for the fate of the children. The conclusion, as Hegel originally sought to show, is that master and slave are inextricably intertwined. They fight each other and may change their relative location, but they have no possibility of escaping from the structure of the relations of power as such. There is no real escape from anxiety in the social world.
The modern city has no time for all this. The urban ego prefers shortcuts: quick, readily available solutions that will help it temper the negative effects of pressure. The connection between anxiety and consumption as a momentary source of calming is well known. Here we will focus on another central element: the body. Social animals that are in a state of anxiety which cannot be annulled make use of an effective painkiller. They huddle together, seek one another’s company, cuddle, lick and stroke one another in order to feel the body heat of the group’s members.
A recent study examined how chimpanzees console one another after events that generate anxiety. Conducted in Chester Zoo, south of Liverpool, the study monitored 22 adult chimps for two years. The researchers observed that after a chimpanzee was involved in a confrontation, the members of the group touched, stroked and played with him. If the chimp was a victim of violence and his altercation with the assailant remained unresolved, the other members of the group stepped up their gestures of consolation and calming.
This method proved useful; the research team reported that every chimp who received beneficent bodily soothing became calm and that no signs of anxiety were observed in him.
Bonobo apes, who share 98.5 percent of their genetic makeup with the human species, took the body-consolation method one step further. One of the main tools they use to assuage tension (in addition to hugging, stroking and grooming) is to engage in multiple acts of sex, often in a group or with several partners. Intriguingly, the bonobo is the only species that has face-to-face sexual relations, like his human relatives.
Physical contact is equally beneficial for human beings. In a study from 2010, a group of subjects received a deep-tissue Swedish massage while a second group received a light massage. The satisfied subjects who received the Swedish massage experienced a decrease in the level of cortisol, the stress hormone, and in the level of vasopressin, a hormone that can cause a rise in cortisol. An increase was noted in the number of lymphocytes – white blood cells that are part of the immune system.
The group that received a light massage did not come away empty-handed, either. They showed an increase in levels of oxytocin, a chemical substance that has been dubbed the “love hormone,” which causes tranquillity, and a parallel decrease in the adrenaline hormone, which encourages the creation of cortisol.
Other studies in recent years have indicated additional interesting consequences of touching. A waitress who momentarily touched the hand of the customer to whom she gave the check received bigger tips. Patients whose hand was brushed against by a doctor during treatment reported that the session had lasted twice as long as patients whose hands were not similarly touched.
But what contact is available to us in the city, where people keep their distance from one another and shun close contact? We assume that we cannot, out of the blue, ask strangers in the street for a hug without risking condemnation and rejection, or even an encounter with the police. However, necessity is the mother of invention.
Paradoxically, and surprisingly, a culture of soliciting contact from strangers has developed in modern cities, which includes an explicit request for its most intimate form: sexual contact. A common urban fantasy, shared by both genders, consists of arriving at a bar or a party, finding a stranger and having sex with him or her on that same night, and even in that very place.
In this sense, the one-night-stand fantasy is the ultimate physical anxiety allayer. When the source of the anxiety is unknown and its influence seeps inward into the psyche, there is one safe place to escape to for consolation: the body.
The conscious rational narrative will relate that this is the fulfillment of the value of freedom, open sexuality, life in the big world in the wildest and most exciting form.
As someone once wrote, the only act of courage remaining in our time is to sleep with a stranger you have just met, without using contraceptives. This narrative cannot be dismissed. It is so powerful that websites have popped up with thousands of users who describe their adventures with strangers or give advice on how to go about sleeping with someone you don’t know.
Though this is a familiar urban act of initiation, it does not tell the whole story. The deep inner pulse of this act is the calm and security that one body confers on another. Receiving consolation through the body is especially powerful for men, whose status has been upended in the late modern period.
To paraphrase Erich Fromm, the sooner and faster a man wants to touch, the more it attests to the intensity of the anxiety that preceded the desire. This type of contact accords the man a wished-for confirmation about the scale of his masculinity. But regardless of gender and gender stereotypes, such contact is capable of soothing anxiety, even if only briefly. An evolutionary explanation referring to the innate instinct to procreate is insufficient to explain the phenomenon, because the pursuit of instant contact is more characteristic of modern urban society than of any other.
After adventurous sex, the calming effect fades and the feelings of anxiety and alienation return. This, after all, is a mechanism that allows temporary control and a letting-go of distress, and then immediately rekindles the source of the pain by arousing pangs of conscience, guilt and loneliness. The fantasy of sleeping with someone of high status happens to play on this same chord: it seeks to vanquish the relations of power and even destroy them through the effect of the contact.
The significance of engaging in sexual relations with the CEO, the television presenter, or the esteemed lecturer, is exactly that: to touch, concretely and intimately, the nucleus of power relations and thereby to dissolve it from within. A frequent interpretation is that power is such a charismatic quality that it acts as a choice aphrodisiac; however, according to the present interpretation it acts more to relieve pain rather than arouse desire.
A man enters a bar. He instinctively wants all the women there, but because of the force of culture on him, he most of all desires the barwoman. She stands at the top of the social ladder in this venue. She is the master. Usually he will not dare to approach her, owing to the class gap between them. However, if they happen to spend the night together, he will never forget that memory. This is because in the symbolic dimension which is where his real inner life plays out he has succeeded in touching the object that tyrannizes him, and in allaying the anxiety that unnerves him inwardly.
In complete control
The body is the place where the struggle to allay anxiety occurs, and not only in sexual context. Food plays a dual role of physical and emotional nourishment from our birth. This is why, together with physical contact with another, eating constitutes another opportunity to gain temporary respite from anxiety.
There are two principal sources of allaying anxiety by means of food. One is eating as a calming act particularly sweet or fatty foods that ingratiate themselves with the palate. Everyone is familiar with the classic images of stress relief in this context: heartbreak and ice cream, crying and chocolate.
The other is control of food, on which we will focus. Whether it’s a clinical case of anorexic avoidance of eating, or sticking strictly to food that is pesticide-free, organic or comes from a farm that pampers its animals, this is a means of restoring control to an anxiety-ridden person. The city dweller can almost never know what is in the food he consumes, but now he has found a way to mark protected territory, a nature preserve in which he regains control.
Mickey Mouse found a trick to curtail one enchanted broom. The stressed urban individual, who rushes from one task to the next, feels that, at last, there is one corner in which she can take back the control panel. If she drinks acai juice and wheat germ in the morning, spreads spirulina powder on organic hummus for lunch, avoids dairy products as much as possible and skips supper, she will attain a desired healthiness and tranquillity. If she does not adhere to this regimen, she will at least avidly and intensively collect and read articles and other information about the subject. These experiences are replete with pleasure and very calming.
Again, the rational narrative will proclaim the healthful qualities of the food. As with sexuality, the conscious voice cannot be belittled. Certainly avoidance of overeating or of consuming bad food is recommended and beneficial. However, as Freud wrote, “It is one of the conditions of the illness that the person who is obeying a compulsion carries it out without understanding its meaning or, at any rate, its chief meaning.” Under chronic conditions of pressure and pollution, drinking organic fruit juice or eating algae salad spiced with flax oil will not be enough to heal the ailments. Nevertheless, so many people are enthralled with nutrition doctrines and try to obey them, even as the inner mechanism that drives them is really to regain control and reduce pressure.
Because this is a titanic struggle against hidden anxiety, we can predict that the acts of control will frequently bring about the development of new disorders, such as asceticism, fanaticism and obsession. The caprice or pleasure that underlies eating will be sacrificed on the altar of restraint. Enemies will be exposed: ketchup will stir enmity; buying junk food will be considered treason. Friends will be chosen and strangers judged by their eating habits. It will be impossible to forgo the tendency to probe the ingredients and calories of every food. Guilt will be generated by incidents of incorrect eating and be compensated for by greater rigor in regard to immaculate food, finding super-foods and inculcating distinctive eating habits such as drinking juices, fasting, avoiding processed food, calculating the proportion of omega 3 and 6, and so on and so forth. The anxiety we tried to control with all the force we could muster will crop up again this time as ritual, as compulsion, as a mechanism of punishment, as religion.
Is there a way out of this? An optimistic take-home message? Is there no way to live in the city and allay anxiety? Can we not subdue the master and expel him from our home? Or at least forge an alliance with him? The answer is probably not. Urban density of people and their desires, of the helter-skelter pace is only growing. It is not amenable to calming without valium in one of its forms. The means of repression we have considered sex and food cannot by their nature confer security over time. They themselves act as double-edged swords, calming anxiety and cultivating it. And the impulses they cover up are always lurking and threatening to emerge at any moment and create a new wave of unease.
But we can’t just let the matter rest there. Maybe, after all, we will drop in at an imagined Zen monastery for a moment and seek tranquillity. Here’s a koan for dessert. Anyone who solves it as required without resorting to logic or the use of everyday reason will win hope and for a few hours a release from big-city anxiety: “Atop the highest City Tower is a miraculous spring. Whoever drinks from it gains eternal youth. Only those who drink from the spring’s water can ascend to the top of the tower.” Got it?
Dr. Gabriel Bukobza is a psychologist and lecturer at the Tel Aviv and Hebrew universities.