The Age of Anxiety?

I’ve got a new essay up at the New York Times‘s Opinionator site. (It’ll also appear in tomorrow’s Sunday Review.) The title the editors used is “It’s Still the ‘Age of Anxiety.’ Or Is It?” and, as that suggests, the piece questions the frequent application to our era (post-WWII to now, roughly) of the epithet “The Age of Anxiety.”

You hear that phrase used a lot these days. (Come to think of it, one place you hear it a lot is the New York Times, so it’s an appropriate forum.) It was coined by W.H. Auden in a 1947 book — a “baroque eclogue,” in his description — of that title, and was quickly and widely adopted as a kind of bumper sticker for Western modernity. In 1948, the year Auden’s The Age of Anxiety won a Pulitzer, Leonard Bernstein wrote a symphony based on Auden’s book. Two years later, Jerome Robbins choreographed an “Age of Anxiety” ballet. The year after that, Alan Watts used the phrase as a chapter title in his book The Wisdom of Insecurity. Since then “the age of anxiety” has been more or less inescapable. Writers and journalists use it to encapsulate the presumptive consciousness of an entire era, the consciousness of all the perils we are forced to contend with: terrorism, environmental degradation, nuclear proliferation, etc. etc.

But is it true? Are we really more jittery than those who came before us?

These are the questions the piece addresses. It’s the first entry in a new series on Anxiety the Times will be running over the coming months, and I hope you enjoy it. As ever, feel free to let me know your thoughts at [email protected]

10 Responses to The Age of Anxiety?

  1. B.Nakhjavani says:

    You state in your article, regarding the relation of past cultures with anxiety: “Indeed, none even considered anxiety a condition. Anxiety didn’t emerge as a cohesive psychiatric concept until the early 20th century …”

    Forgive me for disagreeing with you. The only thing which “did not emerge” was the specific word, which has been re-invented over the ages, depending on the slant given to the condition in each period. Anxiety, in its various permutations, has been called “accidie”, “melancholy” and “spleen” but these words have all been deployed to depict the same human condition: of coping with doubt, of struggling with un-knowing and impotence, of fearing death, of looking for the right words to name things at the right moment – and failing.

    • Daniel Smith says:

      I’m going by the arguably definitive “The History of Mental Symptoms: Descriptive Psychopathology Since the Nineteenth Century,” by German E. Berrios. Berrios argues that while the SYMPTOMS we now include under the umbrella “the anxiety disorders” of course existed prior to the early 20th century, and had various names — indeed, while various names existed to describe the sensation of anxiety and nervousness and panic — “the notion that these symptoms could all be the *manifestation* of a unitary construct called ‘anxiety’ is … alien to pre-Freudian psychiatry.” That’s a short and necessarily reductive summary of Berrios’s chapter titled “Anxiety and Cognate Disorders,” but I’d recommend taking a look.

  2. Jackson says:

    Imagine the unnecessary anxiety the US elites cause the Iraqi’s, the Afghan’s, and the Iranians to experience. “Our” anxiety seems narcissistic.

  3. Mark D Rego, MD says:

    This is an excellent perspective on the over-used term, “age of anxiety.” Dan’s point that we do not know how our predecessors felt is well taken. More importantly he highlights the role of self-consciousness in modern life. For many this is taking over for perception of the world and people around us.
    Just a note though. There have been many studies tracking psychiatric symptoms through the 20th century and even through the last two decades. No matter how you cut it the incidence of anxiety (and other psych disorders) goes up through the last hundred years. Also the age of onset of symptoms get earlier and earlier. Public awareness and drugs do make a difference here but even without them it seems to be true.
    Anyway, glad to have found your blog.
    Lecturer in Psychiatry
    Yale University School of Medicine

  4. Eva says:

    Great article in the New York Times. Just about everyone in life has had periods of their life plagued with anxiety. If they tell you they have not… they are lying. Ask your grandparents. Maturing, looking at the long view of life and sometimes you just have to tell yourself “screw it let it all go to hell”. When you realize it doesn’t all go to hell it gets you to the piont where you get your head around it. Its not easy getting to that place. It takes time. But it does come and then you can easily tell anxiety to F-off!

  5. Jodi Lobozzo Aman says:

    Kudos on the essay and on the book, Daniel. I loved the last paragraph and wholeheartedly agree. Glad your here to help get the word out. :)

  6. Lynn Somerstein says:

    At first I was glad to see an article about anxiety, but then I thought I’d be too scared to read about it. NOT!

    Until I was in my mid thirties I suffered from terrible anxiety- sweaty palms, ragged breathing- I was just plain scared of everything, so I consulted a psychoanalyst, who told me that I had the worse case of anxiety that she had ever seen in someone who was not in a hospital.

    I asked her for tranquilizers, and she said no.

    Many people take tranquilizers; I’ve never regretted that I never have. Here’s what helped me:
    1. psychoanalysis
    2. yoga- not standing on my head, necessarily, but using it by taking asana class, meditating regularly, and doing pranayama, (breath work), which calms you down by slowing the respiratory and heart rates.
    3. humour

    I’m sure that Daniel Smith’s future articles will explain the many ways people combat anxiety. I’m looking forward to reading more.

  7. Lisa says:

    To me there can be no doubt that we are more jittery than those who came before us. We are bombarded by information that is intended to scare us every single day. Here in Seattle there was an MS awareness campaign that’s been going on for a few years: The billboards read “Is it the rain?”, “Is it the trees?”, “Is it the water?” and “Is it the air?” – and of course they all have MS plastered all over them, as well. The final stage of the ad campaign? ““The Northwest has a higher incidence of Multiple Sclerosis than most anywhere on Earth.”” (This is not exactly true, but it IS enough to give someone with anxiety a bump on their “OMG” meter.

    Television commercials tell us about new drugs for things we don’t even have, and then list symptoms – and there’s always that last one listed in the speed-talk or teeny print “or death.” DEATH??? Thanks – I was just trying to watch a cooking show and now I’m gonna go take a Xanax because I’m thinking that I’m going to die.

    Even “friendly” emails from WebMD – the website that’s not suppose to scare the bejeeezes out of you every time you visit – is now sending emails “Deep Leg Thrombosis – What You Need to Know” (which, through the goggles of a person with anxiety immediately translates to “You’re gonna DIE just like that rapper did!!!”)

    Oh, hey, look at that billboard that says they have a new MRI machine that can detect cancer sooner! Yay, now I’m thinking about cancer. And now the tension in my chest from chronically scrunching up my body in an effort to ready myself for something anxiety-inducing just turned into “chest pains” which must be from the cancer I don’t know I have, which must mean I’m going to have a heart attack, which must mean I’m going to die!!! (Commence rifling through purse for bottle of Xanax.)

    Really, everyone seems to use scare tactics to get our attention, and those in the past weren’t “lucky enough” to have access to speed-of-light information, so there was no minute-by-minute bombardment of reasons why they needed to panic. Perhaps as the speed of information has increased, anxiety has increased and become harder to treat. There is no avoiding these type of “terrorist try-me’s” in this day and age; sitting at your computer, taking a Sunday drive, listening to the radio…you will see or hear things that trigger anxiety constantly.

    Living on an island near Seattle, I have to take a ferry to get to the city. I am terrified of the ferry system – and not because I’m simply on a boat for 45 minutes with no way of getting off of it if I really want to, but mainly because the first thing you hear when you board the vessel is the loud, squawking, terrifying message that “in case of an on-board emergency” and “do not leave bags unattended (harkening back to 9/11) … the imagination then goes off on a thousand “What if…” scenarios. Okay, and I am a little afraid of not having the option to just “disembark” whenever I’d like to.

    So, after the rambling – I must say that I am thrilled to see your work getting more and more attention. I ran a panic disorder website from 1996 until 2010 and met tens of thousands of people who were desperate for information and help. Keeping up with that website evaporated my 20′s a 30′s – and kept anxiety at the forefront of my mind at all times. It wasn’t pretty. Oh, and I also went from 115 pounds to over 250 pounds in weight from the antidepressants my doctors prescribed, and SWORE to me that they had no weight-gain side effects. Yeah. Right. No wonder we’re a nation with so many obese people. *sigh

    /end rant

  8. Jose Fonseca says:

    Buddha, himself that even the anxiety of gettinh enlightend didn’t work. He learned though wisdom that” let go” in each eevry moment is being in the present, the only reality.

  9. BILL BART says:

    While tightly ‘entombed’ in an MRI machine last Thursday … for a half hour, I patiently concentrated on my deep breathing .. ‘one, two three, four … one, two, three, four etc’ … and at interrupted moments reminded myself that ‘pain, discomfort, fear, tension are an aspect of being fully human and being fully alive. I reminded myself to be proud of myself for dealing with such a dreadful, uncomfortable, and anxious situation, and to breathe and stay in the present .. the specific moment and …. ‘I am alive today to report this.’ (Breathe, stay in the moment, be self-supportive, and make the best of the journey .. with its joys and its pains … that we ALL share together.) Peaceful traveling ….. BB

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