Are we living in an age of anxiety?

Is anxiety a new phenomenon or have we just not had time to worry about worrying until now?

"The feeling of having in the middle of my body a ball of wool that quickly winds itself up, its innumerable threads pulling from the surface of my body to itself"

Franz Kafka. 

We are all anxious from time to time. It’s a natural emotional response to things which threaten us. But sometimes, things spiral out of control and we have an exaggerated, unhealthy response. 

Research shows that we are more likely to experience anxiety if a parent suffers from it. A childhood involving trauma can also have a big impact, with neglect, physical or emotional abuse, the death of a parent and social ostracization all coding for anxiety later in life. 

Adolescence places more demands upon us than ever. Changing bodies and high pressure lifestyles engulf teenagers on social media and there is no let-up in school where our data-driven education system monitors our performance more assiduously than ever.

By the time we emerge blinking into adulthood we are expected to become expert jugglers overnight, never missing a beat as we balance the three spinning plates of work, love and money. 

UK psychiatrists agree that between 10% and 30% of the UK population suffer from anxiety at any one time and one in three of us will experience anxiety at some point in our lives. In the USA there were 46.3 million prescriptions for the anti-anxiety drug Xanax as far back as 2010. For each of us, the experience is unique and “monumentally subjective,” in the words of Daniel Smith, the author of ‘Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety.’ 

“You feel like you're going mad, like you're going to die; worrying about everything, feeling out of control, wondering what you sound like and what you look like. The voice in your head, it's constant. You can't stop it. It's exhausting."  

 Claire, 26.


But would it be normal to remain calm in the face of the disinformation and demagoguery that the 21st-century has brought us? Or is our growing anxiety a sign of our own weakness?  We are not the first generation to deal with hardship, after all. Fourteenth-century Europeans were beset by famine, marauders, peasant revolts, religious persecution and a plague that wiped out half the population in four years. 

But they worried too. Historians of this period document mass hysteria, anxiety and psychic torment in which, “the more one knew, the less sense the world made.”

Anxiety may not have become a ‘thing’ until the early 20th century, when Freud described it as, “a riddle whose solution would be bound to throw a flood of light upon our whole mental existence,” but it has always been there. 

As our self-awareness has grown so too have the recorded instances. The number of solution seekers has grown, but the shadow remains.  We are not the first generation to be beset by worry. But we are the generation best able to articulate it. And despite how busy we pretend to be, we still have hours free each day to look inside ourselves and feed the monkey on our backs. 

In this respect the fourteenth-century peasant farmer was at an advantage. Between worrying if the sun would rise again in the morning or the birds would eat his seeds there was little time to worry about worrying. 

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