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Why Have We Become So Anxious?

The world of social media is leading us into intense worry.

In Sunday’s New York Times (August 7, 2016), Seth Stephens-Davidowitz showed that Google searches for “anxiety” have increased 150 percent since 2004. Anxiety today is three times as much as a decade ago. This is stunning. What is going on?

Davidowitz showed that growing anxiety doesn’t seem to be linked to specific events, such as terrorist bombings and the like. Single traumatic events don’t seem to prompt a jump in internet anxiety. But the trend is nonetheless powerfully up.

One has to distinguish between clinical anxiety and apprehensiveness. These Google searches are measuring apprehensiveness: Will the children be cut down by gun-rights types on their way to school? Will my plane be blown out of the sky on the flight to Amsterdam?

The news gives plenty of reason for apprehension, and these internet searches for anxiety are picking that up.

But clinical anxiety, known in DSM-speak as “generalized anxiety disorder,” is something different. You have to be preoccupied by worry for at least six months, be impaired by worry in your daily life, and display several of the following symptoms: feeling on edge, mind going blank, and muscle tension. This is a higher bar than apprehensiveness, and Google, being a search engine not a clinician, can’t measure it.

But there are “harder” measures of anxiety than Google. What's happening with them? They’re soaring.

Suicide is not a direct measure of anxiety, but of serious depression (the cause of most suicides). Yet depression is a two-sided coin, and the other side is anxiety. Mixed anxiety-depression is the most common form of either anxiety or depression in the community. And suicide is a kind of proxy for serious anxiety.

In the United States, between 1999 and 2014, the suicide rate increased 24 percent. This is huge.

Despite the widespread availability of antidepressants, suicide in the last 15 years is up by a quarter. Many of these suicide victims will also have been troubled by clinical anxiety: by anxious, nagging, never-ending fears, by the insomnia of anxiety, by the fatigue that it causes. And finally, many, in an impulsive or well-considered act, will have made the fatal decision to end it all.

Many of them are white women in mid-life (45-64): for them, suicide rates were 80 percent higher than in 1999. And suicide rates for teenaged females have tripled since 1999. (Curtin SC et al. “Suicide rates for females and males by race and ethnicity: United States, 1999 and 2014.” NCHS Health E-Stat. National Center for Health Statistics. April 2016)

These are hard, tough numbers, not soft data on Google searches. But both measures converge on the same reality: that apprehensiveness and anxiety in the population are growing by leaps and bounds. It is a kind of general Zeitgeist-y thing, not a specific response to news bulletins.

What is changing in peoples lives to accelerate all this focused and unfocused anxiety? That is the question of the decade, and I don’t have a trenchant answer. But I do have suspicions.

My suspicion is that the world of social media is leading us into this intense worry. Events become enormously magnified as they rocket about the social media echo chamber, intensifying their magnitude with every click of the send button. This is especially true for young females, and it is unusual in a street scene today that most of the young women are not peering intently down at their handheld devices.

For the most part, bravo. It’s great that people can communicate so intently and frequently. But what if they’re communicating fear? Then it’s not so great. In Europe it’s the bombings, in the US the mass shootings. On both sides of the Atlantic there are continual traumatic events. And people respond. Alarmed by social media, they are cancelling trips to France and driving the children to school rather than letting them walk.

Social media have created a universal climate of apprehension that is actually quite removed from the real risk of a traumatic event happening to you or your loved ones, on either side of the pond.

This apprehension registers in Google searches, and tells us that we, as a society, are having a huge problem in evaluating risk.

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