American anxiety

We are consumed by anxiety. And it's making us miserable.

The United States is a country consumed by anxiety. This has been true for a very long time. But it's getting worse.

Be honest: You sense it in yourself. The vague mist of worry that always lurks in the background, ebbing and flowing through the day, the sense of creeping inadequacy that prompts you to work ever-harder. You can detect it in the agitated drive to do ever-more to protect those you love from an endless stream of dangers and threats — and in the urge to keep up with friends, acquaintances, and news online during almost every waking moment, perhaps even crowding out sleep, making it impossible to settle down or drive away the subtle sensation of insufficiency.

Way back in the 1820s, Alexis de Tocqueville noted that Americans were restless in the midst of their prosperity and freedom — existentially anxious that they would run out of time in their finite lives before getting a chance to enjoy all the good things available to them in a world of liberty and abundance. In the second half of the 19th century, doctors defined and diagnosed an anxious condition they dubbed neurasthenia, which they traced to the accelerating pace of modern life. In the 1940s, poet W.H. Auden described his time as an Age of Anxiety, and the theme recurred over and over again in social commentary through the following decades down to the present.

Still, today's anxiousness feels different — more acute, more pervasive, more deeply woven into the very fabric of our lives and world.

Nearly one-third of adolescents and adults suffer from some form of anxiety disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. A poll released in May by the American Psychiatric Association, meanwhile, found that 39 percent of respondents were prepared to describe themselves as more anxious than they were just a year ago. Another 39 percent say they are equally anxious, while only 19 percent feel less anxious now than they did in the recent past.

We see evidence of it all around us — in the increasingly stringent rules that public schools apply to our children; in the parallel phenomenon of helicopter parenting; in the trigger warnings and safe spaces proliferating on college campuses (and off campus as well); in the surge of prescriptions for anti-anxiety medication. You can even hear it in the tenor of online political debate, which often involves one group accusing another of displaying irrational anxiety about this or that sociocultural trend. ("You sure are a poor, pathetic snowflake." "No, you're the real snowflake!")

What's behind the spike in anxiety? There are almost too many potential causes to list them all. There's the same liberty and abundance that Tocqueville noted, only more so. There's the same sense of dizzying cultural acceleration and change that that got the blame for neurasthenia 150 years ago, only more so. There's an accompanying worry about the fragility of our economic status — a fragility intensified by the combination of capitalism's pervasive creative destruction with the minimalism of the safety net we choose to provide for ourselves.

And then there is, of course, the technological component — especially the immensely powerful communications technologies that saturate our late-modern lives. One might think they would be the greatest means of forestalling loneliness ever devised, but something close to the opposite appears to be true. Every text we receive triggers a tiny dopamine rush in our brains to which we quickly become accustomed. Before long we crave more of it — and feel its crushing absence when the messages fail to arrive. The result is a surge in neediness. "Why isn't my friend texting me? Is he writing someone else, someone more interesting, funny, or sexy instead?"

What Jean-Jacques Rousseau called amour-propre — the anxious longing for the approval of our peers, along with the tendency to transform ourselves into what we imagine they want us to be — can become overpowering, as we seek to become the kind of texting partner who will inspire others to respond. In middle school and high school, when so many lifelong social habits first get formed, this worry can spiral out of control into the paralyzing compulsion to text almost constantly — hundreds or even thousands of times a day and on into the night — as teenagers do everything in their power to forestall the fear of the technologically mediated interactions coming to an end.

Social media platforms can be just as bad, with people presenting their lives as a series of great accomplishments and happy set pieces. It's socializing as PR stunt, with Facebook "friends" substituting for real friendships, which involve intimacy and the authentic self-exposure of something closer to the whole you.

Then there's Twitter, which amplifies every local story into something the whole world can obsess over. An event in one place can become a national story for a few minutes, and then another, and another, creating the impression of a world filled with chaos and danger — the perfect backdrop for a perpetual anxiety attack. The human mind might be simply incapable of processing it all and keeping it in the proper factual and moral perspective.

It would be bad enough if this cluster of social, economic, cultural, and technological trends were producing individual unhappiness and even misery. But there are also political consequences.

Anxiety is a form of fear — and politics driven by fear tends to be illiberal. That's because liberalism is a political form that strives for openness, and people who are deathly afraid will be inclined to consider openness a luxury we simply cannot afford. Hence the rise of right-wing demagogues peddling conspiracy theories and draconian policies to make sense of and give order to the disorienting cybernetic swirl in which we swim. Hence also the "fascists are upon us!" hysterics on the other side, whipping up fresh cycles of terror and working to justify political incivility and even violence as a necessary protection against the enemies of democracy as well as common decency.

The politics of anxiety is an ugly business. Like the psychology of anxiety on which it is based, it is easy to provoke but a challenge to dissipate once it settles in. That's especially true when the anxious person — or the anxious nation — denies that anxiety is at work behind the scenes, as it so clearly is, right now.


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