Why We Live in an Age of Anxiety

Anxiety plagues our times. In the UK, 19% of people suffer from depression and anxiety, according to the Office for National Statistics. Forty million Americans have an anxiety disorder; the average age of onset is 11. The disorders range from the generalised (GAD) to the unsettlingly specific: the pulling out of hair, compulsive skin-picking and, among the Inuit people of west Greenland, kayak angst. There is an anxiety for everyone.

Anxiety, says Scott Stossel, the author of My Age of Anxiety, “has become part of the cultural furniture”.

Are you feeling worried yet? And if you are, can you distinguish worry from anxiety, and regular, bearable anxiety from a disorder?

According to Laura Whitehead, the partnerships manager of Anxiety UK, anxiety becomes a problem when it is disproportionate to the risk or obstacle that causes it. She advises observing when worry begins to interfere with daily life. “If you start to lose interest in what you would usually be doing, if you’re noticing physical pain or rapid heartbeat, if you’re finding excuses not to go places because you’re worried about certain things occurring …” The physical manifestations include trembling, headache, pins and needles, sweating, stomach ache, muscular pain, excessive tiredness or awakeness and a change in appetite.

These symptoms seem common enough for most people to claim a few. But begin to look for them and you might spur a hyper-vigilance which itself induces anxiety, causing more symptoms to present. You can see how anxiety spirals. Why are these such anxious times?

Obvious social, cultural and economic factors include the financial crisis of 2008--the year when the word “anxiety” reaches its highest frequency since 1860, according to Google Ngram--and the subsequent austerity, overwork, unemployment and unaffordable housing. Ruth Whippman, the author of The Pursuit of Happiness and why it’s Making us Anxious, adds the search for happiness to the list--because “the expectations of how happy you should be are so high, you always feel you are falling short”. From global terrorism to loneliness, there is a worry to suit us all. And a drug, too: maybe the pharmacological companies are the big winners of rampant anxiety.

As a clinical condition, anxiety is fairly young--even 30 years ago, it did not exist in the US. But while the terminology has changed, the experience itself is ancient. Witness the work of writers through Auden, Freud, Kierkegaard and Darwin to Hippocrates in the fourth century BC. “Which suggests to me,” Stossel says, “that even though it can get filtered through culture, it’s a condition that has been with us since humans emerged.”

Maybe the difference is that people are now more attuned to anxiety. “They may be more willing to recognise it as a problem,” says Nick Grey, the joint clinical director of the Centre For Anxiety Disorders and Trauma at King’s College London. After all, it is less of a taboo to be stressed than depressed. To be busy is to be valued. And anxiety can be stimulating, especially if reframed as excitement.

For some sufferers, simple changes make a huge difference. Address sleep deficiency. Exercise. Seek help. Eat a proper meal, even when busy. Start yoga. And, in the moment when anxiety strengthens its grip, when you can’t find air for worry, Stossel advises: “As much as possible, be in the present--the feel of your arm on the chair, your feet on the floor.” There is one last recommendation that might help everyone. Avoid telling people not to worry, or they will add being misunderstood to their list of anxieties.