Many texts refer to anxiety (and sometimes depression) as the “illness of our time.” It’s a characterization that appears to be prudent. W.H Auden was a British writer who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948 for his poem, The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue. His work focused on the alienation caused by an increasingly fast-paced and industrialized world. This is where the term “age of anxiety” first entered our lexicon. Unfortunately, this feeling of disconnection and fear has gotten worse since 1948.

The Anxiety Disorders Association of America notes that as many as 40 million Americans suffer from some form of anxiety disorder. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) claims, “Anxiety disorders, as a group, are the most common mental illness in America. More than 19 million American adults are affected by these debilitating illnesses each year.”1 From the perspective of these two sources, anxiety disorders affect somewhere between 19 and 40 million Americans. With the current United States population clock at 298 million, this means that between 6% and 13% of Americans have an anxiety disorder. As for depression, the NIMH says, “In any given 1-year period, 9.5 percent of the population, or about 18.8 million American adults, suffer from a depressive illness.”2 The statistics from other industrialized nations are similar to those of the U.S.

In The Anxiety Book, author Jonathan Davidson, M.D. notes that a recent study “that analyzed pooled data on the severity of anxiety in population samples from the early 1950s to the early 1990s, the lead researcher found that anxiety levels have grown more severe over the past forty years. By the 1980s, otherwise normal children were scoring higher than child psychiatric patients from the 1950s.”3 According to Davidson, more people currently see doctors for anxiety than for colds.

We have to ask ourselves: “What’s going on here?” Why is anxiety becoming an increasing burden among industrialized nations while, at the same time, underdeveloped nations (who often suffer much more) experience anxiety at a much lesser degree? On the surface, it would appear that biology has little to do with it. If anxiety were primarily of biological origin, we would see common statistics world-wide. Yet, even still, biology may play a role in ways we least expect. Diet may be an important factor that is often overlooked, but it seems like a stretch to chalk up increasing anxiety to diet alone.

There are some obvious environmental factors that may help us to understand what’s going on. First and foremost, life in Western countries has become increasingly fast-paced. We typically place a lot of emphasis on speed, efficiency, and the monetary cost of time. In addition, we are spending more time commuting and less time with our families. “Studies show Americans spend more time than ever commuting and for a growing number, getting to work takes more than an hour. In the most recent U.S. Census Bureau study, 2.8 million people have so-called extreme commutes, topping 90 minutes.”4 Perhaps our work lives are not the cause of the problem but yet another symptom. The most obvious and most pressing apparent cause of anxiety is a disconnected social structure, something that is virtually unknown in underdeveloped countries. We’re spending much less time with friends, family, and far greater time with electronic media and entertainment. Where we once had a tightly knit family structure to provide emotional support, we now have a loose connection of individuals who just happen to be related. Although there’s no research at this time to support this hypothesis, the correlation seems likely. Yet even this is probably not sufficient enough to explain what’s happening. Anxiety is, at its root, uncertainty. We are becoming less comfortable with uncertainty. We are less willing than ever to accept that some things are simply out of control: illness, old age, and death being the most prominent.

Many Western nations have little or no cultural connection to these natural processes. We don’t see illness, old age, and death in the same way that many people throughout the world see it. We see it in an environment where illness can often be “fixed,” old age can be made to look young again with cosmetic treatments, and death is placed behind closed doors where even corpses are made up to look “alive.” In many cultures, this type of behavior would seem absurd, even neurotic. The more we remove ourselves from these natural processes, the more we become uncomfortable with them. As every psychologist and psychotherapist knows well enough, exposure therapy (whereby the patient is slowly exposed to his or her fears) is perhaps the best treatment for anxiety. Is it possible, then, that anxiety could be prevented with such exposure? If we were to see illness, old age, and death in their natural states on a regular basis, would we develop anxiety at such an enormous rate? It’s difficult to know.

Another important feature of Western societies is the emphasis placed on “achievement” or “success,” and such success is usually defined monetarily. This is obviously enormously stressful. It is not uncommon to find individuals with chronic anxiety who fear severe mental illnesses for the sole purpose that such an illness would label him or her as the ultimate failure. It often isn’t the disease itself that is feared, but the social ramifications of the disease. Worries about work, money, and the social costs of “not making it” can be a terrible burden. This lends itself to a materialistic world-view by which our internal value is determined by the amount of stuff that we own.

A recent study found that Vanuatu, a small undeveloped island in the Pacific, boasted the happiest people on the planet.5. Although the study, funded by the New Economics Foundation, was somewhat biased in its calculations due to the inclusion of an environment footprint, the results are still quite shocking. This small agricultural island with a population of 210,000 people are happy even without televisions, BMWs, iPods, and massive homes with all the amenities? Believe it or not, this is something we’ve known for quite some time. “Happiness” indices have been compiled for many years, and the developed countries consistently score quite low. The conclusion that most researchers draw is directly related to social integration. The closer we are with our families, the happier we are. And, consequently, the more we value monetary growth and possessions, the less happy we become.

Given all of this, it’s fairly obvious that the massive increase in anxiety is not due to a single factor but rather to an amalgam of environmental, biological, cultural, and social issues. The following list is a short summary of such issues that should be considered:

  • Hypermaterialism: an exaggerated focus on material possessions and monetary wealth.
  • Alienation from nature: we’ve become spiritually or emotionally removed from nature.
  • Increased pressure to “succeed”: we’re constantly focused on our social status as it relates to our income, our education, and our career.
  • Population growth: there’s plenty of room for everyone but, for some reason, we choose to live in highly populated areas where we feel unimportant, unnoticed, or unloved. Research has shown that mental illnesses like anxiety are much less common in rural areas.
  • Less job satisfaction: we’re working longer hours, commuting farther, and doing jobs that allow for less creative expression.
  • Strained familial ties: as a result of overwork, our social circles get smaller. We’re paying less attention to family and friends and placing pressure on our personal relationships.
  • Lack of social importance and integration: most “primitive” societies have specific jobs or tasks set aside for each of the members. From an early age, children are assigned tasks that are essential to the life of the community. In contrast, we tend to work in cubicles under flourescent lighting doing tasks that are disconnected from the welfare of our friends and family.
  • The prevalence of “bad news”: we’re obsessed with bad news. Be it disease, famine, or war. We consume hours of continuous news coverage that highlight the worst of humanity. Meanwhile, we rarely see or speak of the wonderful good that is done around the world on a daily basis.
  • Technology: it’s wonderful, but it also complicates our lifestyle and reduces face-time with others. Ever use the self-checkout line in the grocery store? Yeah, it’s great for convenience, but it’s yet another symptom of how we value our time over social interaction.
  • Taboo of death: we don’t speak about death unless it’s in the context of a tragedy. We shove it behind closed doors and refuse to acknowledge our own mortality. We run through life pretending that we’re going to live forever.
  • A failure to appreciate the present moment: I think this speaks for itself. If you’re always putting off happiness as something to be achieved at a later date, when can you be happy? How about right now?
  • Increased choice: when the possibilities are endless, we can become dizzy with options.

Chronic anxiety is highly treatable, but we mustn’t remove the cause from the treatment. We mustn’t continue to reduce the symptoms of anxiety without actually removing the underlying causes. We often get so busy running from the symptoms that we completely forget to focus on the potential causes of our anxiety. Symptom-management is critical to recovery, but it is not a long-term solution. To find such a solution, we must look deeper. It is fairly obvious that reducing the incidence of anxiety in Western countries is an uphill battle. Doing so requires questioning long-held cultural and social norms, yet not doing anything will likely lead to even more anxiety and suffering. As Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” It starts with us.

1National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH). (2001). “Facts About Anxiety Disorders.”: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/publicat/adfacts.cfm

2NIMH. (2000). “Depression.”: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/publicat/depression.cfm

3Davidson, Jonathan. (2003). The Anxiety Book. Riverhead Books, New York: p.3-4.

4Reuters via MSNBC. “Americans commute longer, farther than ever.”: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/12409128

5BBC. (2006). “Happiness doesn’t cost the Earth.”: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/5169448.stm

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