One in five Britons suffer from general anxiety disorders or specific phobias. We examine why our worries are spiralling out of control, and four writers reveal how their fears rule their lives
Anxiety plagues our times. In the UK, 19% of people suffer from depression and anxiety, according to the Office for National Statistics. Forty million Americans have an anxiety disorder; the average age of onset is 11. The disorders range from the generalised (GAD) to the unsettlingly specific: the pulling out of hair, compulsive skin-picking and, among the Inuit people of west Greenland, kayak angst. There is an anxiety for everyone.
Anxiety, says Scott Stossel, the author of My Age of Anxiety, has become part of the cultural furniture. This helps to explain why Karl Ove Knausgaard sells so well, why so many characters in TV dramas and popular fiction have OCD (see Hannah in Girls, JK Rowlings The Casual Vacancy, Monk) and why, eight years after the slogan was first popularised, people still drink out of Keep Calm and Carry On mugs. From Daniel Smiths Monkey Mind to Eleanor Morgans Anxiety For Beginners, the anxiety memoir is the new misery memoir. Talent is no defence against this disorder. Stossel edits the Atlantic. Panic unites those as diverse as the director Michael Bay and the vlogger Zoella.
Are you feeling worried yet? And if you are, can you distinguish worry from anxiety, and regular, bearable anxiety from a disorder?
According to Laura Whitehead, the partnerships manager of Anxiety UK, anxiety becomes a problem when it is disproportionate to the risk or obstacle that causes it. She advises observing when worry begins to interfere with daily life. If you start to lose interest in what you would usually be doing, if youre noticing physical pain or rapid heartbeat, if youre finding excuses not to go places because youre worried about certain things occurring The physical manifestations include trembling, headache, pins and needles, sweating, stomach ache, muscular pain, excessive tiredness or awakeness and a change in appetite.
These symptoms seem common enough for most people to claim a few. But begin to look for them and you might spur a hyper-vigilance which itself induces anxiety, causing more symptoms to present. You can see how anxiety spirals. Why are these such anxious times?
Obvious social, cultural and economic factors include the financial crisis of 2008 the year when the word anxiety reaches its highest frequency since 1860, according to Google Ngram and the subsequent austerity, overwork, unemployment and unaffordable housing. Ruth Whippman, the author of The Pursuit of Happiness and why its Making us Anxious, adds the search for happiness to the list because the expectations of how happy you should be are so high, you always feel you are falling short. From global terrorism to loneliness, there is a worry to suit us all. And a drug, too: maybe the pharmacological companies are the big winners of rampant anxiety.
Cynics may think those who report anxiety overstate their worry because they have nothing better to fret about. (This view is complicated by the fact that cynicism is sometimes a coping mechanism for anxiety.) Even Stossel, despite having been diagnosed as having several anxiety disorders including specific phobias, doesnt rule it out. He thinks that the critics who say this is invented are wrong, but not completely wrong If you lived in the middle ages, you were born what you were born and you did what you did. It may be that some increase in the quantum of overall anxiety is the price we pay for more economic freedom, more choice.
As a clinical condition, anxiety is fairly young even 30 years ago, it did not exist in the US. But while the terminology has changed, the experience itself is ancient. Witness the work of writers through Auden, Freud, Kierkegaard and Darwin to Hippocrates in the fourth century BC. Which suggests to me, Stossel says, that even though it can get filtered through culture, its a condition that has been with us since humans emerged.
Maybe the difference is that people are now more attuned to anxiety. They may be more willing to recognise it as a problem, says Nick Grey, the joint clinical director of the Centre For Anxiety Disorders and Trauma at Kings College London. After all, it is less of a taboo to be stressed than depressed. To be busy is to be valued. And anxiety can be stimulating, especially if reframed as excitement.
In the UK, general practitioners wait six months before diagnosing anxiety. For some sufferers, the most effective recourse is pharmacological. For others, simple changes make a huge difference. Address sleep deficiency. Exercise. Seek help. Eat a proper meal, even when busy. Start yoga. And, in the moment when anxiety strengthens its grip, when you cant find air for worry, Stossel advises: As much as possible, be in the present the feel of your arm on the chair, your feet on the floor. Dont fight anxiety, but allow it to crash over you, knowing it will pass. There is one last recommendation that might help everyone. Avoid telling people not to worry, or they will add being misunderstood to their list of anxieties.