The Anxious Generation

A new study finds that living alone, stress, fear of AIDS, and other modern-day traumas are making Americans unhealthily edgy

The 18th century marked the Age of Enlightenment. Then, Thomas Paine penned his famous plea for an Age of Reason. So what describes the present epoch? Some psychologists argue that it should be called the Age of Anxiety. And they say it's getting worse. "More people visit doctors for anxiety than for colds. Anxiety is now more common than depression," says Jean M. Twenge, a psychologist from Cleveland's Case Western Reserve University.

Twenge recently analyzed 170 studies conducted from 1952 to 1993 to track changes in anxiety levels. Her conclusion, based on the records of 40,192 college students and 12,056 children, ages 9 to 17, are sobering. Crime, AIDS, divorce, unemployment, living alone, lack of trust, and other changes in the social environment have produced anxiety levels in children and young adults that rival those of child psychiatric patients of the 1950s.


  The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that more than 19 million Americans suffer from anxiety disorders, which include panic, obsessive-compulsive syndrome, post-traumatic stress, phobias, and generalized anxiety. The symptoms are chronic and unremitting, and usually grow worse if left untreated.

These afflictions are known as trait anxiety, as opposed to state anxiety, which is a temporary emotion caused by a particular situation. Twenge says trait-anxiety levels are associated with low social connectedness and high environmental threat.

So it came as no surprise that the rise in anxiety was mirrored in social change. "The divorce rate has increased, the birth rate has dropped, people marry later in life, and many more people now live alone," Twenge wrote in the most recent issue of the American Psychological Assn.'s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. As for threats, Twenge points to violent crime, worries about nuclear war, and fear of diseases such as AIDS. "By all accounts, most threats increased between 1952 and 1993," she observes.


  The rampant worry may step up visits to the doctor for a number of physical ailments. Anxiety has been linked to higher occurrences of asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcers, inflammatory bowel disease, and coronary heart disease. "People with anxiety have a higher mortality rate," says Twenge.

Because anxiety predisposes people to depression, an increase in cases in the coming decades is likely, the researcher predicts. Indeed, the study's younger subjects showed more -- and longer -- episodes of depression than did the older group. Other psychological effects include impaired ability to perform daily tasks, marital problems, and a predisposition to alcohol and drug abuse.

The epidemic of melancholy is reflected in the prescriptions written for mood-altering drugs, especially those known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRI's. The leader, Eli Lilly's Prozac, racked up worldwide sales of $670.2 million in the company's third quarter. The runner up, Pfizer's Zoloft, brought in $555 million in the same period, for a gain of 7%. Overall, Pfizer pegs the estimated direct and indirect costs of depression in the U.S alone at more than $43 billion per year.

Is the end in sight? Twenge doubts it. She says anxiety will wane only when people feel safe and connected to others.

By Alan Hall in New York

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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