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.

Anxious student.
Why are college students so stressed?

When a team of UCLA researchers released its latest annual report on the mindset of America's university students last week, one finding screamed out for red-alert media attention: Our college kids are more stressed out and anxious than ever before. In the researchers' surveys of more than 200,000 incoming freshmen, students reported all-time lows in overall mental health and emotional stability, and this news sent the media on a high-strung spree of its own. ABC World News ran footage of harried-looking teenagers rushing around campus, Time wondered"Why Are College Students Reporting Record High Levels of Stress?," and the New York Times story on the report vaulted to the top of the paper's most-e-mailed list.

The culprit for this soaring stress, the stories unanimously declared, is the horrendous job market—a thoroughly lame explanation. I don't know about your college experience, but when I got to school a dozen years ago, my classmates spent about as much time pondering the future "job market" as they spent leafing through calculus textbooks for fun. These news stories have missed the truth because they've overlooked one crucial fact: Students are becoming more anxious because, for many years now, we've all been growing more anxious. This isn't just a campus issue. It's an American issue.

Over the last several decades, both through good economic times and bad, the United States has transformed into the planet's undisputed worry champion. Around the turn of the millennium, anxiety flew past depression as the most prominent mental health issue in America, and it's never looked back: 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, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Stress-related ailments cost the nation $300 billion every year in medical bills and lost productivity, while our usage of sedative drugs keeps skyrocketing; just between 1997 and 2004, Americans more than doubled their spending on anti-anxiety medications like Xanax and Valium, from $900 million to $2.1 billion. And this anxious strain hits us well before we reach college. As psychologist Robert Leahy points out: "The average high school kid today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950s."

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This national surge in nerves is somewhat baffling because we're actually safer from true danger than we've ever been. A century ago, psychologist William James wrote that modernity had insulated us so well from grave threats like grizzly bear attacks that "in civilized life … it has at last become possible for large numbers of people to pass from the cradle to the grave without ever having had a pang of genuine fear." Yet James might have been surprised to learn that even as our streets become safer, our cars more crash-proof, and our food and drugs better regulated, we still keep finding ways to become more tense. And don't assume that this is a problem that affects all nations equally: According to the 2002 World Mental Health Survey, people in developing-world countries such as Nigeria are up to five times less likely to show clinically significant anxiety levels than Americans, despite having more basic life-necessities to worry about. What's more, when these less-anxious developing-world citizens emigrate to the United States, they tend to get just as anxious as Americans. Something about our particular way of life, then, is making us less calm and composed.

So what's behind our ballooning issues with anxiety and stress? This is a thorny question, obviously, and one that can't be solved with any single answer. We could blame our cutthroat work environment, for example, yet work stress alone can't explain our fretfulness, since anxiety hits housewives and the idle rich just as hard. We might point the finger at the sputtering economy, but we kept growing more anxious even in boom times. When I was researching my new book on how people deal best with fear, stress, and pressure, however, I spoke with scores of psychologists and neuroscientists about this question, and I picked up three main themes in their replies. Together, this trio of answers offers a solid start toward explaining the rise in our national nervousness.

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.

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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