According to data from the National Institute of Mental Health, 18 percent of U.S. adults are currently grappling with some type of anxiety disorder. Worse yet, in adolescent girls, rates are up to 38 percent, and in adolescent boys, up to 27 percent.
Sarah Fader is a media consultant in Brooklyn, New York, and author of the book, “#ThisIsWhatAnxietyFeelsLike: When You Think Everyone Hates You & So Much More.” Last winter, when she didn’t hear from a friend about a pending visit for one whole day, she immediately became afraid that “they don’t want to be my friend anymore.”
When Sarah posted this on Twitter, thousands of people responded with their own examples of anxiety:
“Make your two-minute phone call. Lay in bed analyzing it for an hour after.”
“Everything is an emergency. If it's not an emergency, you just haven't figured it out yet.”
“Thinking that every suddenly stopped conversation was about you and that you've done something wrong all the time.”
“My brain is always buzzing too fast and won't be quiet. Ever.”
In June, a New York Times article traced the transition from the “Prozac Nation” to the “United States of Xanax.” According to data from the National Institute of Mental Health, 18 percent of U.S. adults are currently grappling with some type of anxiety disorder. Worse yet, in adolescent girls, rates are up to 38 percent, and in adolescent boys, up to 27 percent. Anxiety is beginning in children at increasingly younger ages, while kids in middle school are already feeling the pressure to get into high school honors classes, to get into AP classes, to get into college. Push notifications, 24 hour apocalyptic news stories, over-scheduling, the always “on” culture, and mistrust at a societal level of the people in charge. No longer just for individuals, anxiety is now a social phenomenon.
According to Jean Twenge, PhD, a social psychologist at San Diego University who has done substantial work on this subject, modern life doesn’t give us as many opportunities to spend time with people and connect with them, in person, compared to, say, 80 years ago. From a mental health stand point, companionship and belonging are essential. Isolation and loneliness breed anxiety. And the more anxiety we experience, the more isolated and cutoff from others we feel. It becomes a vicious cycle.This is true individually and as a society.
This problem gets compounded by 24-hour news. Concern for other tends to nosedive as suffering grows. Believe it or not, this is because when we experience other’s distress, we feel it. Too much of this and we shut down emotionally – a protective mechanism wired into our brains. The reason we will often help one person in pain or in need but turn away from a whole group – we get overwhelmed. In other words, the higher our emotional pain, often the less compassionate we become. Thirty years of research into empathy and compassion has actually demonstrated this. Culturally, compassion is at a 30-year low.
But recent research by neuroscientists has shown that mindfulness meditation reduces activation of the brain networks stimulating emotional pain. This is exactly why increasing numbers of physicians are recommending mindfulness as a technique for emotional and physical well-being, especially for adapting to a stressful and unkind 24/7 world. In addition to this direct benefit for anxiety sufferers, mindfulness training also increases brain networks associated with social affiliation. And our perception of affiliation – companionship and belonging to others – is 100 percent related to our emotional wellbeing.
At a societal level, this has huge potential for preventing everything from bullying to domestic violence to indifference to hate. Perhaps we can reverse the vicious cycle, from anxiety to affiliation. And from affiliation to compassion.
Colleen McGinnis, PsyD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and owner of the Center for Conscious Healing in Middletown, 302-376-6144.