Anxiety: A Modern Phenomenon?

Scott Stossel on Coping with Anxiety in Today's World

Esther Perel

In April 1869, a young doctor in New York named George Miller Beard, writing in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, coined a term for what he believed to be a new and distinctively American affliction. Referring to it sometimes as “nervous exhaustion,” he argued that neurasthenia afflicted primarily ambitious, upwardly mobile members of the urban middle and upper classes—--especially “the brain-workers in almost every household of the Northern and Eastern States”--—whose nervous systems were overtaxed by a rapidly modernizing American civilization.

Influenced by Darwin’s recent work on natural selection, Beard came to believe that cultural and technological evolution had outstripped biological evolution, putting enormous stress on the human animal---particularly those in the business and professional classes, who were most driven by status competition and the burgeoning pressures of capitalism. Even as technological development and economic growth were improving material well-being, the pressure of market competition---along with the uncertainty that took hold as the familiar verities fell away under the assault of modernity and industrialization---produced great emotional stress, draining American workers’ stock of “nerve force” and leading to acute anxiety and nervous prostration.

By the turn of the century, the language and imagery of neurasthenia had permeated deep into American culture. The language of neurasthenic distress (“depression,” “panic”) crept into economic discourse. Nervousness, it seemed, had become the default psychological state and cultural condition of modern times. Disrupted by the transformations of the Industrial Revolution and riven by Gilded Age wealth inequality, the United States was rife with levels of anxiety unmatched in human history.

Or so Beard claimed. But was it really?

The Price of Progress

Given the “record levels of anxiety” we seem to be seeing around the world, surely we must today be living in the most anxious age ever---more anxious even than George Beard’s era of neurasthenia.

How can this be? Economic disruption and recent global recession notwithstanding, we live in an age of unprecedented material affluence. Standards of living in the industrialized West are, on average, higher than ever; life expectancies in the developed world are, for the most part, long and growing. We’re much less likely to die an early death than our ancestors were, much less likely to be subjected to the horrors of smallpox, scurvy, pellagra, polio, tuberculosis, rickets, and packs of roving wolves, not to mention the challenges of life without antibiotics, electricity, or indoor plumbing. Life is, in many ways, easier than it used to be. Therefore shouldn’t we be less anxious than we once were?

Perhaps in some sense the price---and surely, in part, the source---of progress and improvements in material prosperity has been an increase in the average allotment of anxiety. Urbanization, industrialization, the growth of the market economy, increases in geographic and class mobility, the expansion of democratic values and freedoms---all of these trends, on their own and in concert, have contributed to vastly improved material quality of life for millions of people over the last several hundred years. But each of these may also have contributed to rising anxiety.

Recent neurobiological investigations have revealed that uncertainty activates the anxiety circuits of the brain; the amygdalae of clinically anxious people are unusually sensitive to uncertainty. “Intolerance of uncertainty appears to be the central process involved in high levels of worry,” Michel J. Dugas, a psychologist at Penn State, has written. Patients with generalized anxiety disorder “are highly intolerant of uncertainty,” he says. “I use the metaphor of ‘allergy’ to help them conceptualize their relationship with uncertainty.” Between 2007 and 2010, there was a 31 percent increase in the number of news articles employing the word “uncertainty.” No wonder we’re so anxious.

Except maybe we’re relatively less anxious than we think. Humans have always and ever been anxious. Did Cro-Magnons suffer nervous stomachs when predators lurked outside the cave? Did early hominids find their palms getting sweaty and their mouths dry when interacting with higher-status members of the tribe? Were there agoraphobic cavemen or Neanderthals who endured performance anxiety or fear of heights? I imagine there were, since these proto–Homo sapiens were the products of the same evolution that has generated our own capacity for anxiety, and they possessed the same, or very similar, physiological equipment for fear.

Which suggests that anxiety is an abiding part of the human condition. “In our day we still see our major threats as coming from the tooth and claw of physical enemies when they are actually largely psychological and in the broadest sense spiritual---that is they deal with meaninglessness,” Rollo May wrote in 1977 in the foreword to his revised edition of The Meaning of Anxiety. “We are no longer prey to tigers and mastodons but to damage to our self-esteem, ostracism by our group, or the threat of losing out in the competitive struggle. The form of anxiety has changed, but the experience remains relatively the same.”

This blog is excerpted from “A Brief History of Anxiety” The full version is available in the Nov/Dec 2014 issue. To subscribe, click here. >>

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Topic: Anxiety/Depression

Tags: acute anxiety | amygdala | anxiety disorder | depression | ED | emotion | generalized anxiety | generalized anxiety disorder | nervousness | neurobiological | psychologist | psychotherapy | TED | therapy | transformation | A Brief History of Anxiety | George Miller Beard | Michel J. Dugas | Scott Stossel

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1 Comment

Saturday, January 10, 2015 11:48:22 PM | posted by Errol Benvie
Great article. I think another phenomenon is also at play. The relief of surviving say the wolves recalibrates our anxiety for a future event that might be less or more threatening. The ancient events were catastrophic and so we either dies or survived. Today we survive all our pithy events and so have no means of calibrating our anxiety. This idea plays with and adds to the ideas in the article. I'm witnessed this living in South Africa and now living in Australia. There are still real catastrophic events in SA and so there is a lesser response to say business or organisational events. Australia is sometimes called a "nanny state" I think because of their anxiety about pithy things and they legislate them accordingly.
Ironically immigrants from SA get doubly anxious in Australia about career and group issues because they want to succeed here and could not face going back.
Great article thanks.