2020 has been something of an unconventional year – one that’s seen anxiety levels around health reaching unprecedented highs.
The thing is, even without a global pandemic gripping the headlines, anxiety in America is increasing.
Whether or not you suffer from anxiety, there’s a good chance you have a friend or loved one that does. With anxiety increasing globally, it’s useful to explore the condition in a little more detail, investigate potential causes, look at how many people have anxiety, and consider what can be done to tackle the problem.
It’s reasonable to say that almost everyone has anxiety at some point in their life. For lots of people, it’s a fleeting feeling like the worry or tension you get before an exam or a job interview – but for millions of others, it’s a more lingering or permanent state of unease or fear.
National Institute of Mental Health professionals tend to work with five different types of anxiety in the US:
A large percentage of people with an anxiety diagnosis have a generalized anxiety disorder – or GAD for short. GAD is chronic, often life-limiting worry or tension that occurs even if there’s little or nothing provoking the feeling.
A social phobia is characterized by heightened anxiety in social situations. Sometimes, that anxiety will occur in a particular circumstance; eating around others, for instance. However, Social Anxiety Disorder can also be so severe that it’s experienced whenever the person is around other people.
Panic disorder tends to be characterized by a rapid onset of severe anxiety symptoms – such as shortness of breath, heart palpitations and chest pain, dizziness, or the sudden need to use the bathroom. In some people, this panic is brought on by a particular situation – but in others, it can be apparently random.
Although OCD tends to be associated with tidiness and cleanliness, it’s actually an anxiety disorder that can present in a huge number of ways. Recurring anxious unwanted thoughts (termed as ‘obsessions’) can lead to ‘rituals’ – repetitive behaviours designed to ease these thoughts. Over time, these rituals can become compulsions; leading people life-limiting repetitive behaviours, such as excessive cleaning, checking, counting, and arranging.
PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can develop in a person after they are exposed to a particularly stressful, frightening, or otherwise traumatic event. Although PTSD is most commonly associated with veterans and combat personnel, it also occurs in people who have been subject to violence, attacks, disasters, accidents, and other personally significant traumas.
Now we’ve looked at the forms the condition can take, you’re perhaps wondering how many people suffer from anxiety.
The figures are significant; the Anxiety and Depression Associated of America (ADAA) suggest that 18.1% of adults in the US are affected by anxiety issues every year – that’s roughly 38 million people in the US alone.
The condition doesn’t just impact adults though; rates of anxiety are increasing in children too – with the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reporting that 7.1% of children (approximately 4.4 million) aged 3-17 have an anxiety-based diagnosis.
Of course, these figures only represent people who have received help with their condition; if there was an accurate way of finding out how many people are affected by anxiety but haven’t received a diagnosis – the answer could be much higher.
So, why do so many people have anxiety?
In some cases, the answer might seem obvious – especially if a traumatic experience seems to have triggered the condition – but when you dig a little deeper, it’s rarely that simple. For instance, one person involved in a car accident might develop PTSD – but another person in the same accident could be psychologically unaffected by the experience.
The truth is, it’s likely to be a combination of environmental, psychological, genetic, and developmental risk factors that decide whether or not a person will develop anxiety.
Risk factors aside, the immediate feelings that come when anxiety levels build are generally caused by ‘stress hormones’ being released in the body. Through human evolution, these hormones have developed to keep us alert – and whether we’re thinking about a distant relative out hunting and gathering thousands of years ago, or a soldier serving in a war zone today, the mechanism is the same.
If we’re in a potentially dangerous situation, our levels of cortisol and adrenaline are increased. Elevated levels of these hormones increase our heart rate, expand the air passages of the lungs, increase blood flow to our muscles, and increase blood glucose levels – effectively increasing our brain’s sensitivity.
These physiological changes can happen in a split second – putting us on high-alert for any danger nearby. We become hyper-aware of everything around us, we’ll often shake, get ‘butterflies’ in our stomach, and we’ll often become scared or short-tempered and irritable. Should we be faced with immediate danger, these hormones have prepped our lungs and muscles for whichever “fight or flight” response is appropriate.
You’re perhaps wondering why you have so much anxiety if you’re not faced with the kind of immediate threats to your safety that caused these responses to develop across tens of thousands of years.
Psychologists have suggested that our rapidly changing lives have significantly changed what we consider to be a ‘threat’. Today, we’re far less likely to be attacked by a mountain lion compared to our ancient predecessors – but the barrage of psychological worries and dangers has increased exponentially.
For our brains, a danger is a danger – whether it’s a gun being pointed at you, or a chance that you might look foolish fumbling your presentation in front of bosses at work. As such, you could find yourself facing similar hormone responses to both situations. As if that weren’t inconvenient enough, our brain is wired to recognize how we’ve reacted to prior situations and respond in a similar way when you’re in a similar situation. If you’ve always been anxious about going to the dentist, your next visit is almost certainly going to peak your anxiety levels too.
There’s no definitive answer, but if you’re wondering why it seems more people have anxiety today, the amount of social expectation (both real and imagined) and psychological stimulus we’re exposed to is likely to be a significant contributing factor.
Now we know how common anxiety is, you might be surprised to find there’s no single go-to treatment for the condition.
Instead, any intervention will be decided on a case-by-case basis. For the most serious cases, anti-anxiety medication is sometimes used – but in other cases, there are non-pharmaceutical therapy routes that can be extremely effective.
Many Americans deal with anxiety through cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) style approaches and mindfulness practices. In effect, these psychological methods work on ‘rewiring’ your brain and changing your habits – so the go-to anxious response that has impacted your life slowly gets chipped away at; replaced instead with a more manageable and considered reaction.
As with many psychological conditions, awareness is an absolutely vital first step. Is anxiety getting more common? Very possibly. Are increased diagnosis rates making it seem that anxiety’s increasing? Again, possibly – but regardless of the backdrop, recognizing anxiety and anxious behaviour in yourself is likely to be the best way make meaningful change.
Where possible, slow down and try to work on your awareness. Try to view your behaviour as an observer, rather than the person caught up in the moment. There are times when anxiety can be the key to keeping safe – but anxiety disorders are so common because we’re very often on autopilot, simply reacting to the world as it happens around us.
There’s no quick fix to anxiety – but the more you understand about your behaviour, the more control you’ll begin to take back. It’s not a challenge you have to tackle alone either – whether you reach out to friends, family, or local support groups; you’re likely to people who are going through similar types of anxious experience to you. Anxiety is common – and it’s often a comfort to find out that your experience isn’t strange or abnormal; it’s just another part of the complex human condition.