A look at why more people are diagnosed with anxiety disorders now than ever before.
The ’90s were totally depressing. Prozac was the word du jour, and Prozac Nation was the book on everyone’s nightstand. Today we’re anxious, and anxiety disorders appear to be a cultural phenomenon.
Anxiety beat depression as the most common mental health issue people face today, according to a 2016 national study of more than 150,000 at the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Pennsylvania State University. And 38% of 13-to-17-year-old girls and 26% of boys have an anxiety disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
In the past five years, online searches for the word “anxiety” have doubled, according to Google Trends, while the search for “depression” has remained steady.
“Anxiety can be contagious, as one person’s fears reverberate with another’s,” says Janice Morris, a psychologist in private practice in Austin. But, she says, “I react negatively to a depiction of anxiety as trendy, as that word tends to diminish the validity of the experience and imply [that] people choose to experience anxiety in order to join in with a group and feel a sense of belonging.”
The diagnostic criteria for generalized anxiety disorder is being anxious most of the time for more than six months, along with other factors, including restlessness, irritability and problems concentrating, Morris says.
It’s feeling like something isn’t right. Generalized anxiety disorder is often accompanied by physical symptoms, such as trouble breathing, muscle tension and sweating — related to the fight-or-flight response your body uses to keep you safe in emergencies.
Those with anxiety disorders may also have cognitive symptoms: a sense of ominous dread or worry about future scenarios.
Many people diagnosed with anxiety disorders today may be worried about world events. “Many patients in my practice have been increasingly anxious in the past year, owing to the turmoil in American politics and the constant news feed of governmental and global unrest and instability,” Morris says. “When people believe their safety and security are threatened, they will feel anxious, whether it is from political unrest, economic instability, stories of random violence and destruction, or other sources.”
Ron Levant, former president of the American Psychological Association, and professor of psychology at the University of Akron, describes the current anxious mood as “The Trump effect.” He says, “We have a president who scares the hell out of people. Lots of groups are feeling anxious for different reasons: Muslim, Latino, anyone concerned about the world order — ‘he’s reckless, he’s dangerous, he’s going to harm people of my ethnicity and religion, he’s going to create a war.’”
Our pace of life is also increasing, and this may negatively affect anyone’s mental health.
“One of the tricks that anxiety plays on you is that it creates a false sense of urgency in which you feel like you need to resolve the internal tension that you feel quickly or else…,” says Robert Duff, California-based clinical neuropsychologist and author of Hardcore Self Help: F**k Anxiety.
Duff says the pace of the world today supports the false urgency, reinforcing the sense that you’re running out of time. It’s stressful for anyone, and it can impact anxiety-related symptoms in someone who is already anxious, Duff says.
Social media also plays a role. A study by Harvard researchers who looked at Facebook and its effect on adolescents found that the larger a person’s social media network was, the larger their diurnal cortisol production was. This steroid hormone is released in response to stress.
For the 90% of therapy and testing cases who have mentioned the political climate and recent election as a stressor, Duff believes social media comes into play. “We are expected to know everything about each event that happens in real time due to the nature of our social media feeds,” Duff says. “It’s very easy for someone with anxiety to feed their negative thinking patterns by ingesting information that directly relates to their worries and fears.”
But that doesn’t mean their anxiety wasn’t already simmering. Anxiety used to be something people would suffer in silence, because for many types of anxiety disorders, the symptoms cause sufferers not to want to talk about stressors or even interact with other people, Duff says. Now anxiety disorders are at the critical point of being understood, accepted and more represented in media. They’ve become less filtered, and those who suffer are starting to feel as if they aren’t alone — and can actually speak about their illness and be diagnosed.
“In that way, I think there is almost a reclaiming that is happening with mental health and anxiety in particular,” Duff says. “Instead of hiding from the experience of anxiety, people are owning it and probably feel a sense of belonging, as they know there are others who understand what they are going through.”
Today people have more awareness of anxiety symptoms, Duff says. While many used to be unsure whether their experiences qualified as symptoms of anxiety disorders, they now have instant access online to common traits, along with examples of symptoms other people describe.
More awareness means more people recognize that they may have anxiety disorders. As a result, more people are seeking help, whereas in the past, they may have minimized their experiences and suffered in silence, Duff says.