What’s causing the rise in anxiety? According to estimates from the CDC and the UK, between 10 and 20 percent of the adult population in Western countries suffer from regular bouts of anxiety, including feelings of panic and dread. In fact, the problem is now so severe that many organizations both in the US and elsewhere are calling it an epidemic. Something is wrong with the way we’re living today, and we need to do something about it.

But could it all just be a problem with the way we’re collecting data? For years, people have argued that the likelihood of being diagnosed with a mental disorder has increased alongside greater access to psychiatrists and better diagnostic tools. But according to Salon.com, very few researchers think that today’s rise in anxiety is a mirage caused by bad data. Even over the short period for which we’ve had good data, rates of anxiety have exploded.

So what’s really going on? As with many of our modern ills, the reasons aren’t always obvious.

The Drugs Themselves Are Causing Greater Anxiety

Many of the drugs we use today to manage the symptoms of depression and bipolar disorder are only tested for their safety and efficacy in short-term trials, usually lasting a year or less. Trialling drugs for longer than that would increase costs dramatically and prevent them from ever getting to market in good time. Journalist Robert Whitaker, however, has argued that this is a major weakness and that psychiatric drugs can have damaging effects on people over the long-term. According to his research into the scientific literature, there is now mounting evidence that people who take antidepressants over the long-term can experience a reduction in their capacity to deal with life’s challenges which, in turn, could increase their chances of developing anxiety. In short, drugs can solve a problem in the short term but could make it much worse over the long run.

Media, Politics And The Culture Of Catastrophe

Trump caricature

Source: Flickr

By objective measures, the future looks like it’s going to be really good. Today, we’re developing the technology to eradicate poverty, solve climate change, get rid of our most dreaded diseases and increase our leisure time. But many people don’t see things this way. Instead of looking at the remarkable progress humanity has made towards its primary goals over the last century and expecting more of the same from the next, most people are in a state of constant fear and worry about the future. They worry about nuclear proliferation in North Korea, what president Trump might tweet about next, the damaging effect of climate change and the future of the economy.

And there’s a good reason for this: they’re constantly told to worry by the media which seems hellbent on ramping up our anxiety to never-before-seen levels on just about every issue imaginable. According to some authors, like Susan Sontag who wrote a book about the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, there’s a definite tendency for people to catastrophize – that is, imagine the worst possible outcome from a given situation and expect that to happen. In her day, it was the idea that practically everybody in the Western world would end up with HIV, something which is yet to happen.

One of the solutions to our anxiety crisis might be to switch off from sensationalist news channels and reporters and focus on the facts of the situation. Another might be to meditate on the many ways in which humanity is progressing to provide a more rounded view of the overall shape of the future, without worrying that things are falling apart all the time.

Social Alienation

Humans are supposed to live in small communities. Evolutionarily, our species is adapted to living in groups of 8 to 80 people. Beyond that, our natural tools for interacting with people start to break down, and we adopt improvised methods for navigating the social nexus. This seems to be something which is quite particular to Western culture. For instance, people immigrating to the US from Mexico experience lower levels of anxiety, even once they’re living in a foreign country. Researchers think that their social ties to their home country are the main reason they stave off mental health problems. Despite moving, they maintain a strong connection to their community back home – a community which many Westerners may not have.

The Pressure To Succeed

As social creatures, we care enormously about what other people think about us, whether we like it or not. As a result, what the group values is what we should value. The problem today, however, is that what the group values is incredibly hard to achieve. Success in anything doesn’t come overnight: it takes years of hard work and dedication, something many people just aren’t good at.

Pressure to succeed at work and in school is helping to drive anxiety levels up. People feel as if they need to succeed to have a life worth living, but they don’t always have the tools to make it happen. This can then lead to stress and anxiety, which itself can stymie their efforts.

LaheyHealth.org recommends that people try to manage their stress and calm their anxiety. According to the evidence, there are ways to actively reduce stress and improve functioning without abandoning life goals altogether. It’s just a matter of perspective.

Economic Stagnation

market crash

Source: Pixabay

Finally, the economic stagnation of recent years has taken its toll on the mental health of all countries affected. The chief executive of Anxiety UK recently said that his organization has received more calls for help since the recession and that people who would ordinarily be coping just fine with their anxiety have been tipped over the edge.

Worryingly, this anxiety isn’t just unpleasant: it’s leading to deaths. The data show that the suicide rate among populations who are losing ground economically (particular working age whites) is on the rise.

Anxiety is a serious issue which is affecting ever-increasing numbers of people. On a personal level, it appears that we need to reevaluate what is truly important to us and bring it back under our control.