Everyday anxiety is on the increase and the things that are part of modern life drive it. We are in a permanent state of frenetic, highly agitated states of being; not getting enough sleep, rushing, too much work, not enough balance – stressful conditions. We’re emulating anxious conditions in our everyday living.
We live with an epidemic of anxiety. In 1980, 4% of Americans suffered a mental disorder associated with anxiety. Today half do. The trends in Britain are similar. A third of Britons will experience anxiety disorder at some stage in their life, with an explosion of reported anxiety among teenagers and young adults. Anxiety, depression, self-harm, attention deficit disorder and profound eating problems afflict us as never before.
Anxiety has always been part of the human condition – as has depression and tendencies to self-harm – but never, it seems, on this scale. A number of trends appear to be colliding. This is an era when everyone is expected to find their personal route to happiness at the same time as the bonds of society, faith and community – tried and tested mechanisms to support wellbeing – are fraying. Teenagers in particular – fearful of missing out – are beset by a myriad of agonising choices about how to achieve the good life with fewer social and psychological anchors to help them navigate their way. Who can blame them if they respond with an ever-rising sense of anxiety, if not panic?
At the same time, there has been a transformation in individuals’ willingness and society’s readiness to accept that the resulting anguish is not something inherent in the human condition – but often a form of malady that should be recognised and treated. In Jean Paul Sartre’s Nausea, the (anti-) hero, Antoine Roquentin, is so plagued by wondering if existence has any purpose that he becomes intensely depressed and listless. Nausea was celebrated as breaking new literary ground in the 1930s, illuminating the essence of the human condition. Today Roquentin would be diagnosed with general anxiety disorder, and prescribed an antidepressant or invited to undergo a course of cognitive behavioural therapy.
Is there, however, too great a readiness to pathologise the anxiety of being alive? Almost certainly. There is great and growing unease in parts of the psychology and psychiatry professions that too many practitioners have become trigger happy – too quick to prescribe mood-altering drugs to patients only going through life events, ranging from bereavement to divorce, which are naturally anxiety inducing.
Life never was and never can be an uninterrupted progress towards utopian bliss. Grief following the loss of someone beloved, a great ambition thwarted or simply witnessing one’s body age or wither through illness are all concomitants of being alive – pains alongside life’s many wonderful pleasures. On the other hand, there is no doubt that the patients complaining of acute mental anxiety feel intensely disturbed beyond some normal level of anxiousness – and that teenagers can feel this more acutely still.
Young women in particular are ever more transfixed with how they look to the point that, for a growing proportion, it is translating into mental health disorders with physical side-effects – bulimia, anorexia and self-harm. Asking them to snap out of it is not going to work. And while there probably is too great a readiness to pathologise anxiety, doctors and counsellors, faced with a growing epidemic, are only responding as best they can. To ignore what is going on would be equally damnable.
Happiness – when individual liberty is seen as all-important – lies in exercising choice and taking responsibility for our own lives. Get the choices right, and self-realisation, self-fulfilment and happiness will follow. Get them wrong and you risk mockery and marginalisation. Teenagers know as never before that they must get their choices right, pass their exams – and many will have 24/7 parents “helping” them in their quest. However, the act of making many choices with necessarily imperfect information perforce induces anxiety and stress – and once they are made, happiness does not automatically follow. Small wonder that teenagers in general, and teenage girls in particular, find the whole experience traumatising – as do their elders, even if they have better-developed emotional and psychological resource to deal with it.
Teenagers, for instance, need parents who understand that parenting is less about being friends with their children – partners in their kids’ exercise of choice. Rather, parenting is about creating strong families in which parents have to lead and exercise authority – havens from the 24/7 intrusiveness of social media.