Anxiety: The New Epidemic

Anxiety: The New Epidemic

“Worry. Never has a society worried about so much — and so little— simultaneously” (Kingston).

Over the last thirty years the United States has become the world’s worry champion.  In recent years, anxiety has become the most prominent health issue in America.  “With more than 18 percent of adults suffering from an anxiety disorder in any given year, the United States is now the most anxious nation in the world” (Clark).  Daniel Peters, a psychologist in California states, “The term ‘worrying’ has replaced ‘thinking.’  People don’t say, ‘I’m thinking about this’ anymore; they say, ‘I’m worrying about this.’ Like a virus, worry begets worry” (Clark).  Are people just exaggerating their feelings, replacing “thinking” with “worry”?  Or, has there been a shift in our emotions to where society is now feeling the increasingly heavy weight from stress and anxiety, and is starting to buckle under its pressure.  According to Robert Leahy, “The average high school kid today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950s” (Clark).  What happened?  What caused this change to create an anxiety filled society?  I believe several things attributed to this shift, but that the most powerful, overlooked influence, is the media and social network.  I believe our society is facing a national worry epidemic and the media is fanning the flame.

In Anne Kingston’s article “The New Worry Epidemic” she describes how worry has progressed through our society.  Worry wasn’t always considered to be a negative emotion.  In fact, a little over a hundred years ago, worry was valued because it provided an adrenalin rush that was said to improve performance.  Moderate levels of anxiety were deemed not only valuable, but necessary, and too little anxiety was said to impair performance.  Times have changed.  Worry is no longer considered valuable, or even a natural part of life.  Now it is to be shunned, fixed, or buried deep where it can be ignored.  We have created an intolerant attitude toward negative feelings.   Taylor Clark describes in his article “It’s Not the Job Market” what he believes are the three main reasons Americans are more anxious now than in the past.  He interviewed numerous neuroscientists and psychologists, asking them for their opinion on why there has been a surge in anxiety in our society.  Three answers came up repeatedly.

The most common answer was that America has lost its sense of community.  He calls it the “Bowling Alone” effect.  Positive relationships play a big role in helping to alleviate our anxiety.  We are relational creatures, and sometimes the business of life distracts us from the fact that we need human contact for our emotional health.  He goes on to point out that other cultures have better social support systems in place, and as a result, they are better off psychologically.  The increase in popularity of texting and social media has added to the problem.  When people are feeling discouraged and they text a friend or post about it on Facebook it’s not enough of a human connection to alleviate their pain.  It may help for the moment, but it’s the equivalent of putting a band aid on a gushing wound.  It is not a good substitute for a face-to-face interaction.

The second culprit the experts said was the “torrent of (often nerve-racking) information we now consume.”  The volume of information we absorb now has increased dramatically.  Clark points out that the “average Sunday newspaper contains more raw information than people in earlier eras would absorb over the course of a few years, and some neuroscientists believe that our brains simply weren’t designed to handle this kind of volume.”  For those who don’t read the newspaper anymore, we have access to countless news reports from our computers and our phones, which are usually never more than an arm’s length away.  We are inundated with hundreds of ads daily as we read our email and search the web.  The content of the reports has changed in the last few decades as well.  The majority of the news is of the fear-igniting variety.  Evelyn Behar, a worry expert at the University of Illinois says the media is “always reporting that this thing causes cancer or that thing can kill you.  We live in a culture where fear is used to motivate us.”

The third factor Clark points out leaves us particularly vulnerable to this kind of manipulation from the media.  He states that we have become intolerant to negative feelings.  We “have developed habits for dealing with anxiety and stress that actually make them far worse. We vilify our aversive emotions and fight them, rather than letting them run their own course.”  This causes us to run from nerve wracking situations instead of enjoying new experiences.  We want to bury feelings like anxiety and stress because they are uncomfortable.  Instead of going through the emotions and letting them run their course, we try to cover them with alcohol, shopping or other coping mechanisms.  “This intolerance toward emotional pain puts us at loggerheads with a basic truth about being human: Sometimes we just feel bad, and there’s nothing wrong with that (Clark).

It is no secret that fear can be used as a successful motivator.  This is as popular media tactic to lure us into the newest gruesome story.  There have been several studies performed on the role the media plays in increasing our anxiety.

In 2005, Oxford Academy did a study on media hypes, and the growing number of people who blame their health problems on the disasters portrayed by the media.  “Media hypes” are “media-generated news waves reinforcing over and over again one specific frame while ignoring other perspectives” (Vasterman).  They were able to prove that media hypes fueled viewers’ anxieties, to the extent that after watching disaster reports, people would “adopt the explanations offered by the media and integrate them into their story about their own health complaints.”  They concluded that “if a sudden increase in media reports about people claiming health problems occurs directly after a highly publicized key event, there is reason to believe that it is media generated” (Vasterman).

Another report was done in 2009.  Mesch, Schwirian and Kolobov conducted a study showing how attention to the media increased worry in the population.  This was performed during the height of the H1N1 (Swine Flu) outbreak.  By the end of 2009 more than 61 million had been affected by H1N1.  Of those 61 million, 275,000 were hospitalized and 12,500 had died from the virus.  The purpose of the study was to observe “the relationship between attention to the mass media and concern about becoming infected with H1N1” (Mesch).  Their results showed that those who followed the outbreak closely through the news were more anxious about the possibility of becoming infected.  A lot of this can be attributed by how the media treated the information about H1N1.  It became a show, “Whenever a pandemic strikes, a wave of mass media reports spread the story, often in the most overstated and alarming tones.  As news of the contagion is disseminated, fear or worry over infection often breaks out in segments of the population” (Mesch).    What followed was also intriguing.  As time passed, and they watched less of the media reports, instead of becoming less fearful their fear actually increased.

They concluded that the “media exposure was the most important factor” to the rising fear in the population because it “explained the likelihood of being concerned about the possibility of infection.”  Stoking anxiety is an effective selling tool.  According to Peters, “It’s the number one way to increase ratings or to sell products.” (Peters)

Unfortunately, the media using the H1N1 outbreak to stir up fear in the masses wasn’t an isolated event.  There is a more recent example just a few seasons ago.  I am reminded of the election campaign.  This was a wild circus constructed on the anxieties and fears of the American people.  Not much was mentioned about solutions for the issues facing the country, policy proposals or the future.  It was led “by two candidates who arouse gargantuan anxieties, fear and hatred in their opponents.”  Because of this, more than half of all Americans were stressed by this election campaign.

A third study was performed by Ruth E. Propper on the effects of watching the horrendous attacks on September 11, 2001 on the news.  That horrible day was traumatic for everyone in the United States, but this study showed that people experienced an increase in stress from watching the reports through the media, especially through the television.  Those involved in the study reported dream changes following the attack and “a strong relation between exposure to the events on television and changes in dream features after the attacks” (Propper).

In an attempt to add more fuel to the fire, ABC News published an article on January 7, 2006 entitled “Do We Worry About the Right Things?”  This article essentially pushed readers to become better informed about all the various threats around the corner.  This is contrary to what many psychologist believe to be true.  Stephen A. Diamond, Ph.D., wrote an article for Psychology Today, entitled “Why We Worry.”  He writes, “Ironically, worrying–which is typically an attempt to anticipate and prevent bad things happening– tends to make one even more anxious, creating a never-ending and constantly escalating vicious cycle of anxiety-worry-more anxiety-more worry, etc.”  Watching a steady stream of news reports in an attempt to gather information to be prepared for the unknown future has been shown to raise anxiety levels instead of calming fears.  Of course, ABC News in an effort boost ratings states, “Less knowledge, more anxiety.  More knowledge, less anxiety.” (Potter)

A little worry, used in a positive way, can help propel one to meet their goals.  It can create motivation and improve performance, but too much anxiety can damage the body.  According to Don Joseph Geowey, a writer for the Huffington Post, “The stress hormones that worry dumps into your brain have been linked to shrinking brain mass, lowering your IQ, being prone to heart disease, cancer and premature aging, predicting martial problems, family dysfunction and clinical depression, and making seniors more likely to develop dementia and Alzheimer’s” (Geowey).  Currently, there are 40 million Americans suffering from “Generalized Anxiety Disorder” or “GAD”.  The most prominent symptom is chronic worry.

“In the battlefield of life, goes the thinking, warriors are the winners, worriers the losers.  The idea of a worrier is one who is disempowered and scared, where a warrior is one who is courageous and can take on obstacles” (Kingston).  But the truth remains that, “Fear is a basic animal brain response. You see something dangerous and you have the ‘flight or fight’ reflex. It’s in the moment, now.”  Anxiety is a little different, it’s similar to fear, but it’s anticipatory of something in the future that could be potentially dangerous. “It’s fear plus planning; it’s your lizard brain, at the back of the brain, with the frontal lobes. It’s the forward planning that separates man from beast.” (Kingston).

The probability of being overcome by anxiety is increasing in our society.  The constant negativity from the media, and the result of isolation due in part to social media has attributed the anxiety epidemic our nation is currently facing.  This anxiety carries many risks, some negatively influencing our health, others affecting our perception and outlook on life.  “Worry alters the atmosphere of the mind. It shrinks your awareness of the present and your ability to enjoy what’s around you right now. It cycles possible bad futures around in your head and forces you to live in dreadful future scenarios, 90 percent of which will never come true.  Pretty soon you are seeing the world through a dirty windshield. Worry dims every sunrise and amplifies mistrust. A mounting tide of anxiety makes people angrier about society and more darkly pessimistic about the possibility of changing it. Spiraling worry is the perverted underside of rationality” (Brooks).  A little worry can be used as fuel to motivate us into a better life, but a lot of worry can destroy it.

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Kingston, Anne. “The new worry epidemic.” The New York Times, 30 Apr. 2014. Web. 10 May 2017.

Clark, Taylor. “American anxiety: The three real reasons why we are more stressed than ever before.” Slate Magazine. N.p., 31 Jan. 2011. Web. 10 May 2017.

Vasterman, Peter, C. Joris Yzermans, and Anja J. E. Dirkzwager. “The Role of the Media and Media Hypes in the Aftermath of Disasters.” Epidemiologic Reviews. Oxford University Press, 01 July 2005. Web. 10 May 2017.

Mesch, Gustavo S., Kent P. Schwirian, and Tanya Kolobov. “Attention to the media and worry over becoming infected: the case of the Swine Flu (H1N1) Epidemic of 2009.” Sociology of Health & Illness. Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 03 Oct. 2012. Web. 10 May 2017.

Propper, Ruth E., Robert Stickgold, Raeann Keeley, and Stephen D. Christman. “Is Television Traumatic?: Dreams, Stress, and Media Exposure in the Aftermath of September 11, 2001.” Psychological Science. N.p., 1 Apr. 2007. Web. 10 May 2017.

Potter, Ned. “Do We Worry About the Right Things?” ABC News. ABC News Network, 07 Jan. 2006. Web. 10 May 2017.

Goewey, Don Joseph. “85 Percent of What We Worry About Never Happens.” The Huffington Post., 25 Aug. 2015. Web. 10 May 2017.

Brooks, David. “Opinion | The Epidemic of Worry.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 25 Oct. 2016. Web. 10 May 2017.


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