The Age of Anxiety?
From a sufferer’s perspective, anxiety is not epochal. It is always and absolutely personal. “The Age of Anxiety” is a phrase that has been used to characterize the consciousness of our era, the awareness of everything perilous about the modern world: the degradation of the environment, nuclear energy, religious fundamentalism, threats to privacy and the family, drugs, pornography, violence, terrorism. Since 1990, it has appeared in the title or subtitle of at least two dozen books on subjects ranging from science to politics to parenting to sex. As a sticker on the bumper of the Western world, “the age of anxiety” has been ubiquitous for more than six decades now. But is it accurate?
It is undeniable that ours is an age in which an enormous and growing number of people suffer from anxiety, and we are increasingly well-medicated for it. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorders now affect 18 percent of the adult population of the United States, or about 40 million people. Last spring, the drug research firm IMS Health released its annual report on pharmaceutical use in the United States. The anti-anxiety drug alprazolam — better known by its brand name, Xanax — was the top psychiatric drug on the list, clocking in at 46.3 million prescriptions in 2010. Just because our anxiety is heavily diagnosed and medicated, however, doesn’t mean that we are more anxious than our forebears.