Anxiety Is Now Public Enemy No. 1

New research identifies anxiety as the biggest threat to successful aging.

Posted Jul 09, 2017

Source: Wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

Anxiety is fueling a public health crisis. In January 2017, the APA published a “Stress in America: Coping With Change” annual report which identified the first significant uptick in anxiety levels since the survey began ten years ago. In June 2017, the New York Times published an article, “Prozac Nation Is Now the United States of Xanax,” which chronicles the epidemic of anxiety sweeping our nation. 

Another new study reports that anxiety presents the highest population-attributable risk for lower subjective well-being (SWB) scores for both men and women 65-90 years of age. Depression was a close second. These findings were published in the July 2017 issue of BMC Geriatrics. (SWB is commonly used to gauge individuals' degree of life satisfaction and happiness.)

This research was conducted by Karl-Heinz Ladwig and collaborators from the Mental Health Research Group at the Institute of Epidemiology II, which focuses on the assessment of environmental and lifestyle risk factors that jointly affect major chronic diseases and mental health.

Across the board, Ladwig et al. found that depression and anxiety are the two factors that most significantly reduce subjective well-being. That said, anxiety presented the singular highest risk for lowering subjective well-being scores for both men and women.

For this study, a cross-sectional analysis was conducted among 3602 participants with an average age of 72.8 years. SWB was assessed using the WHO (Five) Well-Being Index. Participants were categorized as “low” SWB (score ≤ 50) or “high” SWB (score > 50) on a 0-100 scale. Notably, women tended to have lower SWB scores than men.

The results also indicate that low income, physical inactivity, multimorbidity, and sleeping problems were associated with low SWB. Interestingly, living alone increased the odds of low SWB for women, but not for men. As mentioned earlier, anxiety was the single biggest risk factor for low SWB in both sexes.

Previous research has identified a strong correlation between high subjective well-being scores and lower morbidity and mortality rates. From a public health perspective, these findings are a call to action for all of us to become vigilant about identifying and pursuing effective ways to lower our anxiety. 

"How Can I Lower My Anxiety Without Psychopharmaceuticals?"

The vagus nerve directly counterbalances fight-or-flight nervous system responses and has the neurobiological power to reduce anxiety. Your vagus nerve is a central command center and emotion regulation thermostat within your autonomic nervous system that can help you stay calm, cool, and collected. For this reason, I'm on a mission to put the vagus nerve in the spotlight as an "elephant in the room" that has been overlooked and underestimated for too long as an easily accessible drug-free anxiety elixir. 

In modern society, most of us don't regularly encounter aggressive assailants that require us to physically fight or flee. Nevertheless, many of us feel constantly threatened or under attack. Psychological fear or experiencing a chronic state of free-floating anxiety sounds the "fight-or-flight" bugle and triggers persistent physiological changes that can be toxic to your mind, body, and brain over time.

Fight-or-flight stress responses are discussed ad nauseum as the psychophysiological mechanism that fuels anxiety. But, to the best of my knowledge, there is a dearth of anyone offering practical solutions or comprehensive actionable advice rooted in basic psychophysiology. Therefore, as a public health advocate, I've curated a unique prescriptive and "how-to" guide of different vagus nerve maneuvers anyone can use to kickstart the "relaxation response" of his or her parasympathetic nervous system. 

Anxiety suppresses your vagus nerve and reduces vagal tone (VT). Depressed vagal activity can create a downward spiral that allows unbridled anxiety to snowball out of control. The good news is that simply improving vagal tone can break this vicious cycle.

Higher vagal tone is associated with lower levels of anxiety, less depression, positive emotion regulation, better cardiorespiratory health, more robust immune responses, downregulation of inflammation biomarkers, and an upward spiral of prosocial behaviors.

There are lots of holistic ways to curtail fight-flight-or-freeze responses by hacking into your nervous system using a hodge-podge of vagal maneuvers. These anxiety-busting vagus techniques don't cost a penny, have zero negative side effects, and are completely within the locus of your control. Vagal maneuvers can easily be adapted to fit your lifestyle and executed just about anywhere or anytime. 

Some vagal maneuvers you can use to reduce anxiety include: Diaphragmatic breathing, "tonic levels" of physical activity, mind-body interventions (MBIs) such as yoga and meditation, tending-and-befriending via face-to-face social connectedness, self-distancing techniques such as gutsy third person self-talk, narrative expressive journaling, experiencing a sense of awe in nature to promote "the small self" by acknowledging something much bigger than you, kindness towards oneself and self-compassion, creating a "flow state" by matching your level of skill with any challenge that pushes against your limits, nourishing micro-moments of feeling simpatico with others (including strangers), and many more. 

If you are currently suffering from anxiety, hopefully, learning about these various vagal maneuvers will inspire you to make some of these activities a part of your daily routine. To dive deeper into this topic and fine-tune more specific ways to reduce your fight-or-flight responses—and lower your anxiety without psychopharmaceuticals—check out my nine-part Psychology Today series "A Vagus Nerve Survival Guide."


Lukaschek, Karoline, Anushiya Vanajan, Hamimatunnisa Johar, Nina Weiland, and Karl-Heinz Ladwig. "“In the mood for ageing”: determinants of subjective well-being in older men and women of the population-based KORA-Age study." BMC Geriatrics, 17, no. 1 (2017): 126. DOI: 10.1186/s12877-017-0513-5

More Posts