“The Anxious Americans”

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Tanya Luhrmann writes in the New York Times: “Americans are a pretty anxious people. Nearly one in five of us — 18 percent — has an anxiety disorder. We spend over $2 billion a year on anti-anxiety medications … In 2002 the World Mental Health Survey found that Americans were the most anxious people in the 14 countries studied, with more clinically significant levels of anxiety than people in Nigeria, Lebanon and Ukraine.” Luhrmann concludes: “… there is something deeply cultural about the way (our) mind is imagined, (that) has consequences for the way we experience thoughts and feelings. Our high anxiety, whatever the challenges we face, is probably one of the consequences.”

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17 COMMENTS

  1. America is pretty screwed up; it long ago stopped being “the greatest country on Earth”… I say that as a sad US citizen.

    As for 18% of people having anxiety disorders, that’s a bunch of BS. People don’t have anxiety disorders. People have problems in living that cause distress to different degrees at different times. Besides, anxiety is the adaptive an normal response to distressing situations, anxiety is not a disorder even when it’s extreme.

  2. I’m thinking it might have something to do with mistrust of the government, police brutality, mass shootings, hackers, families turning on each other, and of course, a need to keep up with the Jones’, the fear of getting sick and not having money for health care, or any trust at all in health care due to the myriad stories of gross negligence, incompetence and fraud, approaching retirement without savings, etc. This is just off the cuff, I’m sure there is plenty more to pinpoint as to why Americans might be so anxious at this time.

    If it were to be a disorder, I’d say it’s a socio-political disorder which is causing anxiety in Americans. It’s impossible for this to not change, as nothing is permanent and people are waking up, but how that change will come about and what it will look like is up for grabs, I guess. Good time to be centered and grounded, as I’m sure these changes will bring some pretty strong winds. There is A LOT to rectify.

  3. Inequality…the divide between rich and poor….the myth that everyone can (read should) be able to make it good and the only reason they haven’t is that they didn’t try hard enough, think positive enough….the lie that every person is created equal…the politics of fear….guns….psychiatrists prescribing drugs to fix problems that drugs simply can’t fix.

  4. Consider the “new Age” implosion into our daily, family, work, and economic life also. For instance; we can “create our own reality”; “if someone else is angry or upset with us, it is a reflection of that which must be corrected within us”; “the positive thinking mess which means if I only think, visualize, and meditate on what I wish for; job, money success, relationship success; we will have it.” Create what you desire and put it into a pretty pink bubble and send it off into the universe and voila; it will come true for you. This is not to disregard the mental illness industry, the psychiatrists, Big Pharma, politics, society, etc. As far as psychiatrists, Big Pharma, and the “mental illnesses industry” they are just in greed, corruption, and a desire to control our lives like Big Brother are taking advantage of our distress. This also includes the medical community also who now and repeatedly whether in the media, internet, or in the doctors’ offices blaime us for “physical ills” and say they are “self-inflicted.” These concepts and realities all add to the anxiety we feel as Americans; in addition to what is mentioned above and the mass drugging of America and the side effect of therapy only increases the pain, the distress, and the agony. Now we must all deal with the concept that we are “defective” or disordered or diseased. Yes, Christianity teaches we are sinful; but not until in the past twenty to thirty years did we actually become defective, diseased and disordered also.

  5. I, also, should add that all our distress, either physical, mental, or spiritual is now considered by the illicit “professionals” as “self-inflicted.” We should be responsible as adults; but considering all distress as “self-inflicted” is irresponsible on the part of the “professionals” and inherently damaging, and thus leads to an early death of the individual unless one fights back. Many in our society just give up.

  6. I think many of the comments point to part of the reason for the anxious state of Americans, though I believe that there is an underlying issue that is not being addressed. Over the centuries humans have moved far away from the life of our evolutionary origins. While some aspects of this have led to greater health, there are aspects that have left individuals feeling fragile. We evolved to live in communities with strong ties and support. There is substantial evidence that states of emotional distress are linked to the lack of emotionally supportive communities. The United States idealizes individuality yet pathologizes the individual who becomes distressed.
    There are two aspects to the sense of social connection. One develops an internalized sense of one’s social connectiveness through childhood and adolescence. One’s emotional life then is also affected by the actual social network that is available. Any fragility, either in one’s internal sense of social identity or in one’s actual social network can lead to emotional distress, including feelings of anxiety, depression or isolation.
    Countries where people rate themselves as happiest tend to have strong social bonds. It makes no sense to diagnose and medicate individuals who are suffering in society, without looking at the structures of the society that may be contributing to the distress.

    • I agree that social connection is something we have lost as a society (and not accidentally – there is writing back into the 1700s about the need to break up communities in order to serve the needs of industrialization) and that this causes a great deal of existential anxiety that we see around us. Relatedly, it is easy to underestimate the effect of the huge effort in the 50s and before to undermine mothers nursing their children and parents picking up their kids when they cry. The current 40+ generation was subjected to early childhood 4-hour feeding schedules and enforced “cry it out” strategies when we wanted comfort, and most were denied the physiological and emotional benefits of the nursing relationship. Additionally, most of us were removed by hospital protocol from our parents’ care immediately after birth during the imprinting period, causing yet further damage to the normal parent-child bonding process.

      Some of this has changed (nursing figures have increased dramatically, for instance), but the damage is far from repaired, as our nursing rates remain unacceptably low, and there are huge swathes of society where mythology regarding sleeping arrangements, feeding schedules, and fears of “spoiling” one’s infant still reign supreme, including with some of our medical professionals. There remains, for instance, a constant message from the medical community that having a baby sleep in the same bed with you is extremely dangerous, when most of the world has used this arrangement for most of human history with little to no difficulty.

      It is difficult to quantify the impact this has had on our society as a whole, but one almost certain result of babies not being picked up and cared for when they cry and not being held and fed when they’re hungry and being forced to sleep alone when they are frightened is that these babies grow up into more anxious adults.

      It is not surprising that we live in a society where anxiety is so common. It’s actually a pretty scary society to live in!

      —- Steve

      • More than that: a child that was sick and had to be taken to hospital was forcibly separated from his/her parents. It happened to me and some of my friends as small children – I spend several weeks in a hospital and my parents were not allowed to visit (!) because this would cause crying when they leave. So the comfort of the staff was more important than the psychological well-being of children. Many kids were traumatised this way as parental separation in a very early age leads to a whole lot of issues. For me it led to a profound distrust of medical personnel which turned out to be a good thing, nonetheless it’s a crime on a generation.

    • “The United States idealizes individuality yet pathologizes the individual who becomes distressed.”

      Within the mental health world, people become pathologized (name-called) for showing signs of wellness! Confidence and having certainty turns into ‘narcissism;’ having vision turns into ‘delusions of grandeur;’ being passionate, productive, and energetic can easily garner a label of ‘manic.’ Not to mention, standing up for one’s self in the face of abuse can get you in deep trouble, medicated, and labeled all sorts of things. Pure stigma.

      I’m not sure how people in a society like this can be expected to get along, if people are always evaluating others and thinking of each other in derogatory terms—limited, at best. That does not feel like a safe society to me. A healthy and safe society would be one where people are encouraged to feel GOOD about themselves–self-respecting and gifted, not patronized.

      • Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. It’s also a question of class and race. You’re not allowed to dream big when you’re poor. While nobody is safe from psychiatry you’re much more in trouble if you’re already disadvantaged – than any kind of behaviour that steps out of line is a sign of sickness.

  7. Hi Steve,

    your comments on raising children are very pertinent to the issue of our sense of connectivity. An interesting book that is directly on this subject is: Diamond, J. (2012) The World Until Yesterday, What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies? New York NY. Viking Penguin. In this book the child rearing practices of some tribal cultures are described. In the Efe and Aka tribes, fro example studies have shown that infants are passed between various adults between 8 and 14 times. Children are in constant contact, not just with their own parents, but also with many other caregivers.
    We do live in a very isolating environment, where most people feel solely responsible for their own emotional lives.

    • My wife did some research recently on the impact of culture on rates of postpartum depression. (She has an anthropology degree and has been active as a birth doula and La Leche League leader for years.) She found that in cultures where mothers have supportive people around them to assist with making food, washing up, and caring for the baby, postpartum depression is almost completely non-existent. Yet we are told it is all hormones…

      And I’m quite sure having a mother who feels supported and having multiple available adult supports leads to less anxious adults.

      Thanks for the additional data. We could learn a hell of a lot from traditional societies!

      — Steve

  8. On the 40+ plus aged grown up children; the one who posted about this is so right. Even to this day, my mother is terrified that something I might do might affect her in some way. Her manner of showing love is “criticism” and “threats” of something terrible that might happen to me. She is tragically unable to consider that even suggesting a positive outcome; that even suggesting there might be improvement although it is not seen at that time; that even suggesting that my way of dealing with the problem may actually be workable. In her mind, there is only one way and that is her way. Any other way is to “coddle” me and to not make me face up to ‘reality” (which is her defeatist reality, alone) There is only one outcome for me and that would mean the end of her world; unless I do it her way. Not even God’s way is as good as her way. In retrospect; the raising of children who are now 40+ adults was a manner of selfishness that was (is) more in favor of the parents and seeks to inform the child (even as an adult) that she is not a worthwhile individual and no matter what she says, thinks, does, acts; it will never be good enough; because she is still a child and knows absolutely nothing. My mother says, “I am eighty and I know everything; even more than anyone else in the world I could access for counsel; including my banker, my dermatologist, my pastor, etc.” Yes, there is a lot to be said for the pathologizing and medicating of “normal” behavior, feelings, and thoughts of all age groups. The damage it has caused is incomprehensible; but the generation that raised the 40+ adults of today caused a ready made “clientele” for this evil. Now, I believe that my sister probably became sick and died from cancer because of all this “lack of real love” for a generation. I know now that people like my mother to be understanding and uplifting to their children would be to them an act that they did not really love them. This is perverse; but is a tragic reality.