It’s getting harder to feel good about life in America. According to data collected by the Census Bureau, the average income of Americans has fallen by almost 10 percent since the beginning of the recession of 2008. Some experts say the financial crisis has been as traumatic and anxiety-producing for millions of Americans as the events of 9/11/2001. While people back then were fearful of another terrorist attack, they are now experiencing profound existential angst about their future.
Economic Uncertainty Takes Its Toll on People’s Mental Health
More than 40 million people suffer from anxiety disorders in this country, estimates the Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA) based on prescription drug sales. Younger generations seem to be most affected.
“It used to be that if you got a good education, you would get a good job. But today, young people are uncertain about finding a job, they have a lot more debt, they are working while studying, finishing later, more fatigued and some are starting families while still in school, and juggling all of this causes a great deal of stress,” said Dr. Katy Kamkar, a clinical psychologist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, Canada.
So, are our times more stressful and anxiety-ridden than, let’s say, the Great Depression era in the 1930s? In a way yes, according to Dr. Jean Twenge, a professor at San Diego State University and author of “Generation Me.” “Anxiety rates have risen steadily over the past seven decades, during good economic times and bad,” she said.
Dr. Twenge sees at least some of the reasons in the deep cultural shifts we as a society have undergone since the 1960s. “Recent generations have been told over and over again: You can be anything you want to be, you can have the big job title, you can have the big bank account, and in the case of women, you can have the perfect body. That puts a lot on a person’s shoulder – and it is also not really true. That disconnect creates a lot of anxiety about how hard you need to work […] and a deep fear of failure.”
And it’s not only that people have impossibly high expectations that are bound to be frustrated at some point in their lives. The world keeps changing so fast that many feel left behind even at a relatively young age.
Reconsidering one’s values and making changes to one’s lifestyle is not easy. It’s hard if not impossible to get off the train once you’re on it. “People feel they should always be on, and that they could be called upon at any moment to do something,” said Dr. Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, a professor of psychology at Yale University who specializes in stress and women’s health. “Our e-mail and iPhones are constantly pinging, which keeps anxiety heightened all the time.”
Experiencing anxiety every now and then is – like stress – a natural phenomenon and not necessarily a bad one. It’s an emotional reaction that helps us recognize actual threats or problems and deal with them. If kept at a healthy level, anxiety can help us to be more focused and perform better. However, if it grows out of proportion, it can become quickly counter-productive and, in extreme cases, even debilitating. “Generally, we say anxiety is not normal when it lasts days beyond a specific stressful event, or when it interferes with a person’s life,” said Dr. Terri Moffit, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University in North Carolina.
The term “anxiety disorder” refers to anxiety as a chronic condition. It can take on different forms. There is generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), social anxiety disorder (a.k.a. social phobia) and specific phobias.
Anxiety and fear are often used interchangeably. But in clinical usage, they have clearly distinct meanings. Anxiety is defined as a negative emotional state for which the cause is either not identified or perceived to be beyond a person’s control. Fear, on the other hand, is an emotional and physiological response to a concrete external threat. Phobias, which are responses of fear or discomfort triggered by specific stimuli or situations, are also considered to be anxiety disorders.
Anxiety often goes hand in hand with clinical depression and other mental disorders. It is estimated that about 60 percent of people suffering from chronic depression experience regular bouts of anxiety as well.
Sexual dysfunctions are quite common among men and women with anxiety disorders, although it cannot always be determined whether anxiety causes the dysfunction or whether they both result from a common cause.
Treatment options for anxiety disorders include psychotherapy (e.g. cognitive-behavioral therapy), medication and lifestyle changes.
Exercise has been shown to help with stress management and can have positive effects on anxiety reduction as well. So can dietary changes. “Eating too much of the wrong kind of foods produces an inflammation effect that can cause disease in the brain,” said Dr. David Heber, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). Sufferers from chronic anxiety have reported that cutting back on starchy foods and eating more fresh fruits and vegetables has made a significant difference not only for their physical- but also their emotional well-being.
Controlling and, if necessary, reducing consumption of caffeine and alcohol is equally as important. Caffeine can increase anxiety and trigger panic attacks. While alcohol may make you feel more relaxed for the moment, it can also contribute to depression.
Relaxation techniques, yoga, meditation, breathing exercises, massage and other soothing treatments are all highly recommended to counterbalance anxiety. They may not always suffice, but they are always helpful. Just by being able to turn off the noise once in a while, both body and mind can relax, heal and rejuvenate.