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Matthew J. Edlund M.D.


This New Age of Anxiety

There's plenty to fear — but you can fix what you understand.

The Future?

One of my patients recently told me “I don’t worry about the future. I don’t see a future.”

We have been living through a new Age of Anxiety. It does and does not resemble the times W.H. Auden wrote about in his 1948 Pulitzer Prize-winning poem of that name. Auden had written from the 1930s about his fears of the end of the civilization he loved:

The lights must never go out,

The music must always play . . .

Lest we should see where we are,

Lost in a haunted wood,

Children afraid of the night

Who have never been happy or good.

(“September 1st, 1939”)

In the mid 1940s a global Age of Anxiety flared. There was the fear nuclear weapons would destroy much of human civilization. Though little spoken of today, there were several incidents before, during and after the Cuban Missile Crisis when the sudden death of tens of millions came chillingly close (apparently Eric Schlosser will be describing several of them in a new book).

But today’s anxiety has different causes:

Political Anxiety

9/11 scared much of the developed world’s population as potently as nuclear weapons scared some developers of the 1945 atomic bomb, who wondered if their creation would ignite the atmosphere. After 9/11, no one was safe, and the public started thinking about the bombs not possessed by the U.S., Russian, China or European powers. Scenarios of terrorists taking nuclear weapons from Pakistan or exploding dirty bombs in Chicago are now staples of television and movies. Middle East experts worry that once Iran possesses nuclear weapons, Egypt and Saudi Arabia will quickly make or buy them, entangling Israel’s large nuclear capacity closer to the complicated, nearly 14-century-old Sunni-Shiite conflict presently rising again in Syria, Iraq, and other countries.

That’s just the Middle East. The relations between India and Pakistan, China’s “peaceful rise” and its many populous neighbors surrounding the “China Sea" also provoke global concern.

Economic Anxiety

The world financial crisis of 2007 continues on. Despite Dodd-Frank and Basel 2 and 3 the financial mess has not been fixed. There remain perhaps $700-800 trillion in derivatives floating around the world economy ready to again blast things apart. Following recent financial fiascos, the process of deleveraging can go on for far more than a decade, with increasing pain for hundreds of millions. I live in a “rich” American county where last year one in 12 people became homeless. In the same year a large group in Congress attempted to default the national government, which the rest of the world recognized as a potential trigger for global fiscal catastrophe — if the U.S. Treasury stops paying, who will? We are also witnessing the fiasco of the faltering Euro, and creaking cracks in the Chinese economic miracle. People are hurting all over the world, and austerity measures reminiscent of the Great Depression may not survive political blowback from European and Latin American citizens who abruptly can’t pay for food or health care.

Planetary Anxiety

The Anthropocene, or human centered geological age, is also upon us. Nature changes humans, but we are with astonishing rapidity changing nature. One of perhaps six major biological die-offs of life on earth is taking place through our actions, occasioning less comment in the media than Kim Kardashian’s marriage. Right now we are extincting thousands and perhaps even millions of species — we can’t know for sure because we don’t know how many species are alive. In 2007 the Arctic’s summer ice covered 5.8 million square miles — this year it will contract to less than a quarter of that space. Prozac, estrogens, antibiotics and arsenic show up in chicken feed and the water supply, while the results of the approximately 100,000 chemicals added to the land since World War II remain unknown and mainly unstudied. As genetic engineering grows apace, people wonder where the next AIDS and SARS viruses will arrive.

Times Like These

My patient is worried about there being a future, but there’s an oft repeated proverb: the truth about times like these is that there have always been times like these. Some of our fear of the future resides in our knowing more about what’s happening than people knew before. The world is information-networked in ways that only science fiction writers described bare decades ago. Computer power grows daily, and with it the ability to model future scenarios, causes and results. Education has gone global, and now kids in most countries can take courses from Stanford or MIT — often for free. Countries that once lacked all but a handful of university graduates now employ groups of Ph.D. economists to run Treasury Departments (perhaps not an unalloyed triumph.)

But information is king, and useful information increases with the associated noise. The Soviet Union could shock the world with a nuclear test in 1949, but prognosticators can now tell you if and when North Korea will explode a device and its chance of being a dud. Satellites in space can track license plates — and the police can track you and your cell phone — pretty much everywhere.

We are also witnessing improvements in systems and complexity theory. We have the chance and the opportunity to understand things in ways we never had before.

What you understand you can fix.

The realization may also eventually reach people that human bodies are equally hives and units of information, information that constantly remakes and renews itself.

Human bodies regenerate — quickly. That’s how we stay alive. We use the new information we receive each millisecond to enhance and transform the old information inside our cells. Then we continue, remaking ourselves anew.

Cities and societies operate similarly. The capacity to regenerate is as widespread as our fears of what may harm us. Repair and regeneration constantly fight disease and disintegration — and not just in biology.

And we have better treatments of anxiety, too. Auden mainly used alcohol. We have cognitive-behavioral therapy, mindfulness training, rest relaxation techniques, benzodiazepines and anti-anxiety drugs.

Use information wisely and things might just turn out rather well.

They might.


About the Author

Matthew Edlund, M.D., researches rest, sleep, performance, and public health. He is the author of Healthy Without Health Insurance and The Power of Rest.