If you’re anxious, some cultural forces may be at play
August 12th, 2012 by Briana Cummings
If you are struggling with anxiety, it may help to know that it is likely in large part the product of particularly American cultural forces.
America’s anxiety epidemic
The following is taken from a recent article in the Atlantic Monthly, called “Trickle-Down Distress: How America’s Broken Meritocracy Drives our National Anxiety Epidemic“:
Americans lead the world in anxiety. A World Health Organization survey found that 31% of Americans suffer from anxiety at some point in their lifetimes, compared to 25.3% of those in Colombia and 24.6% of those in New Zealand, the countries that rank second and third in rates of anxiety. “[P]eople in developing-world countries such as Nigeria are up to five times less likely to show clinically significant anxiety levels than Americans, despite having more basic life-necessities to worry about, ” writes Taylor Clark, author of Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool. But when citizens of these countries emigrate to the United States, “they tend to get just as anxious as Americans.”
Thirty-one percent is the lifetime risk of suffering from clinical anxiety; at any given time, 1 in 5 Americans are struggling with anxiety, making it far and away the country’s most common mental disorder (the second-most common disorder, mood disorders like depression, affects 1 in 10 Americans).
This phenomenon is not only uniquely American, but also uniquely modern. Surveys show that stress levels have increased progressively over the last four decades, and research indicates that it will continue to do so. A 2011 study from UCLA found that first-year students suffer more from stress than ever before.
Reasons for the epidemic
The Atlantic Monthly article attributes this anxiety epidemic to the “insidious” myth that we live in a meritocracy and to our resulting perfectionist tendencies. In a society that equates success with merit, explains Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, people stress a lot more about every little decision they make. By contrast, in countries like China, where people “have much less of their core selves [i.e., their merit] on the line with each decision they make,” people stress a lot less about making decisions. “So a bad pair of jeans is just a bad pair of jeans. In the U.S., it’s a bad pair of jeans AND a statement about you. Think how much weightier your decisions are if every one you make tells the world something about who you are.”
In a separate Slate article, “It’s Not the Economy,” Taylor Clark adds three additional explanations for America’s anxiety epidemic: (1) the massive volume of information we consume, (2) our society’s intolerant attitude toward negative feelings, and (3) the diminishing strength of American communities and interpersonal support networks. Americans tend to have much less contact with extended families and a much less well developed sense of community than their foreign counterparts, the result of our trend of migrating across the country, settling in insular suburban communities “where our closest pal is our plasma-screen TV,” and relying increasingly on texting and social media, which psychologists say are no substitute for in-person interaction.