by Daniel Smith, New York Times Opinion, January 14, 2012
It’s hard to believe that anyone but scholars of modern literature or paid critics have read W. H. Auden’s dramatic poem “The Age of Anxiety” all the way through, even though it won a Pulitzer Prize in 1948, the year after it was published. It is a difficult work — allusive, allegorical, at times surreal. But more to the point, it’s boring. The characters meet, drink, talk and walk around; then they drink, talk and walk around some more. They do this for 138 pages; then they go home.
Auden’s title, though: that people know. From the moment it appeared, the phrase has been used to characterize the consciousness of our era, the awareness of everything perilous about the modern world: the degradation of the environment, nuclear energy, religious fundamentalism, threats to privacy and the family, drugs, pornography, violence, terrorism.
From a sufferer’s perspective, anxiety is not epochal. It is always and absolutely personal.
Since 1990, it has appeared in the title or subtitle of at least two dozen books on subjects ranging from science to politics to parenting to sex (“Mindblowing Sex in the Real World: Hot Tips for Doing It in the Age of Anxiety”). As a sticker on the bumper of the Western world, “the age of anxiety” has been ubiquitous for more than six decades now.
But is it accurate? As someone who has struggled with chronic anxiety for many years, I have my doubts. For one thing, when you’ve endured anxiety’s insults for long enough — the gnawed fingernails and sweat-drenched underarms, the hyperventilating and crippling panic attacks — calling the 20th century “The Age of Anxiety” starts to sound like calling the 17th century “The Age of the Throbbing Migraine”: so metaphorical as to be meaningless.
From a sufferer’s perspective, anxiety is always and absolutely personal. It is an experience: a coloration in the way one thinks, feels and acts. It is a petty monster able to work such humdrum tricks as paralyzing you over your salad, convincing you that a choice between blue cheese and vinaigrette is as dire as that between life and death. When you are on intimate terms with something so monumentally subjective, it is hard to think in terms of epochs.
And yet it is undeniable that ours is an age in which an enormous and growing number of people suffer from anxiety. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorders now affect 18 percent of the adult population of the United States, or about 40 million people. By comparison, mood disorders — depression and bipolar illness, primarily — affect 9.5 percent. That makes anxiety the most common psychiatric complaint by a wide margin, and one for which we are increasingly well-medicated. Last spring, the drug research firm IMS Health released its annual report on pharmaceutical use in the United States. The anti-anxiety drug alprazolam — better known by its brand name, Xanax — was the top psychiatric drug on the list, clocking in at 46.3 million prescriptions in 2010.
Just because our anxiety is heavily diagnosed and medicated, however, doesn’t mean that we are more anxious than our forebears. It might simply mean that we are better treated — that we are, as individuals and a culture, more cognizant of the mind’s tendency to spin out of control.
Earlier eras might have been even more jittery than ours. Fourteenth-century Europe, for example, experienced devastating famines, waves of pillaging mercenaries, peasant revolts, religious turmoil and a plague that wiped out as much as half the population in four years. The evidence suggests that all this resulted in mass convulsions of anxiety, a period of psychic torment in which, as one historian has put it, “the more one knew, the less sense the world made.” Nor did the monolithic presence of the Church necessarily help; it might even have made things worse. A firm belief in God and heaven was near-universal, but so was a firm belief in their opposites: the Devil and hell. And you could never be certain in which direction you were headed.
It’s hard to imagine that we have it even close to as bad as that. Yet there is an aspect of anxiety that we clearly have more of than ever before: self-awareness. The inhabitants of earlier eras might have been wracked by nerves, but none fixated like we do on the condition. Indeed, none even considered anxiety a condition. Anxiety didn’t emerge as a cohesive psychiatric concept until the early 20th century, when Freud highlighted it as “the nodal point at which the most various and important questions converge, a riddle whose solution would be bound to throw a flood of light upon our whole mental existence.”
After that, the number of thinkers and artists who sought to solve this riddle increased exponentially. By 1977, the psychoanalyst Rollo May was noting an explosion in papers, books and studies on the subject. “Anxiety,” he wrote, “has certainly come out of the dimness of the professional office into the bright light of the marketplace.”
None of this is to say that ours is a serene age. Obviously it isn’t. It is to say, however, that we shouldn’t be possessive about our uncertainties, particularly as one of the dominant features of anxiety is its recursiveness. Anxiety begins with a single worry, and the more you concentrate on that worry, the more powerful it gets, and the more you worry. One of the best things you can do is learn to let go: to disempower the worry altogether. If you start to believe that anxiety is a foregone conclusion — if you start to believe the hype about the times we live in — then you risk surrendering the battle before it’s begun.