American anxiety: The three real reasons why we are more stressed than ever before.

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Jan. 31 2011 4:53 PM

It's Not the Job Market

The three real reasons why Americans are more anxious than ever before.

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For the experts, one particularly egregious offender is America's increasing loss of community, what we might call the "Bowling Alone" effect. Human contact and kinship help alleviate anxiety (our evolutionary ancestors, of course, were always safer in numbers), yet as we leave family behind to migrate all over the country, often settling in insular suburbs where our closest pal is our plasma-screen TV, we miss out on this all-important element of in-person connection. As fear researcher Michael Davis of Emory University told me: "If you've lost the extended family and lost the sense of community, you're going to have fewer people you can depend on, and therefore you'll be more anxious. Other cultures have much more social support and are better off psychologically because of it." Another factor that adds to this problem—especially among young people—is our growing reliance on texting and social media for community, which many psychologists say is no substitute for real human interaction. When you're feeling most dreadful, you don't run to your Facebook profile for consolation; you run to a flesh-and-blood friend.

Continuing with this tech theme, the next culprit the experts mentioned was the torrent of (often nerve-racking) information we now consume. For one thing, the amount of data we take in each day has jumped dramatically—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. But even worse, this avalanche of data is increasingly of the alarmist, fear-igniting variety. If a TV newscast isn't covering a grisly double homicide, the anchor is teasing a story about the hidden threat in your own home. "The media does this to us," explained Evelyn Behar, a worry expert who teaches at the University of Illinois-Chicago. "It's 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."

And finally, we're especially vulnerable to this kind of manipulation because of the third factor: our intolerant attitude toward negative feelings. Put simply, Americans 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. We avoid situations that make us nervous. We try to bury uncomfortable feelings like anxiety and stress with alcohol or entertainment or shopping sprees. Psychologist Steven Hayes, creator of a highly effective anxiety treatment formula called acceptance and commitment therapy, told me that we've fallen victim to "feel-goodism," the false idea that "bad" feelings ought to be annihilated, controlled, or erased by a pill. 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—which is why struggling too hard to control our anxiety and stress only makes things more difficult.

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Of course, loss of community, information overload, and a crummy attitude toward uncomfortable emotions aren't the final, all-encompassing answers for America's widespread case of nerves. They're simply a starting point for a more productive discussion. The good news here is that we have the tools to halt this trend, because in recent years psychologists and neuroscientists have given us a far better idea of how to deal well with anxiety and stress than ever before. So despite all of our worry and strain, America, fear not: With a bit of intelligently applied effort, any one of us can bring our anxieties back into a healthier balance. And maybe, just maybe, our college kids will one day be able to return to the state of appallingly irresponsible, beer-soaked carelessness that is their birthright.

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Taylor Clark is a writer based in Portland. His new book, Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool, will be published in March.

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