Monday, January 23, 2012

The age of anxiety

Daniel Smith does an interesting piece asking whether it is appropriate to consider our current times an "age of anxiety." Some clips: is undeniable that ours is an age in which an enormous and growing number of people suffer from anxiety. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorders now affect 18 percent of the adult population of the United States, or about 40 million people. By comparison, mood disorders — depression and bipolar illness, primarily — affect 9.5 percent…anti-anxiety drug alprazolam — better known by its brand name, Xanax — was the top psychiatric drug on the list, clocking in at 46.3 million prescriptions in 2010.

Just because our anxiety is heavily diagnosed and medicated, however, doesn’t mean that we are more anxious than our forebears. It might simply mean that we are better treated — that we are, as individuals and a culture, more cognizant of the mind’s tendency to spin out of control.

Earlier eras might have been even more jittery than ours. Fourteenth-century Europe, for example, experienced devastating famines, waves of pillaging mercenaries, peasant revolts, religious turmoil and a plague that wiped out as much as half the population in four years. The evidence suggests that all this resulted in mass convulsions of anxiety, a period of psychic torment in which, as one historian has put it, “the more one knew, the less sense the world made.”

It’s hard to imagine that we have it even close to as bad as that. Yet there is an aspect of anxiety that we clearly have more of than ever before: self-awareness…Anxiety didn’t emerge as a cohesive psychiatric concept until the early 20th century..By 1977, the psychoanalyst Rollo May was noting an explosion in papers, books and studies on the subject.

...we shouldn’t be possessive about our uncertainties, particularly as one of the dominant features of anxiety is its recursiveness. Anxiety begins with a single worry, and the more you concentrate on that worry, the more powerful it gets, and the more you worry. One of the best things you can do is learn to let go: to disempower the worry altogether. If you start to believe that anxiety is a foregone conclusion — if you start to believe the hype about the times we live in — then you risk surrendering the battle before it’s begun.


  1. Very interesting post. Will you cover methods/techniques for disempowering the worry in a future post?

  2. Next Monday's post deals with this. And the techniques noted in "MindStuff: a user's guide" in the left column of this blog are relevant.

  3. Cool! Thanks! By the way, NPR ran this story on depression and the outdated notion of seratonin's role ( This Monday's definitely Brain Health Day for a while.

  4. I wrote about this issue, in a British context, a while back.