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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Resisting rationality : the transformative capacity of anxiety and its implications for political theory Stewart, Katriona Vera


Large-scale national epidemiological surveys consistently find that women are more likely to be diagnosed with emotional disorders, specifically anxiety and depression, than men. Although the cause(s) for this phenomenon are difficult to determine, research increasingly shows that environmental factors play a greater role than genetics/biology in producing this anomaly (D. Freeman and J. Freeman 2013). Current psychological models of mental illness, however, tend to negate social and political aspects of experience by depicting anxiety as a naturally occurring pathology within women (Ussher 2010). This thesis seeks to critically interrogate and re-create constructions of mental illness by examining how our conceptions of female anxiety have been shaped by negative images in psychiatric discourse and liberal political theory. I analyze hysteria as a precursor to anxiety to show how the age-old association between femininity and madness continues to influence prevailing attitudes around gender. To challenge these negative depictions, I reconceptualize anxiety as a natural response to power, in particular, patriarchal relationships. Further, I contend that while anxiety can be debilitating, it is also the source of a significant contribution to diverse and oftentimes empathetic voices. Thus while psychological therapy may be a useful tool for some people who experience mental illness, it should not be the overarching paradigm through which we view anxiety, nor should it define the identities of anxious individuals. Bringing anxiety into communication with contemporary social theories of disability, I conclude that liberal theory is an inadequate political ideology in that it is unconsciously gendered and thus excludes women (and men) who experience emotional illness from its theoretical criteria for citizenship. Consequently, it is necessary to reject wholly negative images of anxiety at the crux of liberal theory. Instead, expanding on the work of care ethicists, I advocate viewing anxiety as a different, relational voice rooted in an ethic of interdependence.

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