The word anxiety hit our culture like a plague over the last decade. You know its a cultural phenomenon when media outlets like BuzzFeed start writing articles titled, “20 Things That Are Peak Anxiety Culture”. What drove all this attention to the disorder to begin with? Are the numbers of clinical anxiety diagnoses going up? Or are we just more aware and open about speaking about it?


Anxiety evolved as a survival tool for staying on guard in dangerous situations. We still have this response in us but instead it is used for silently cursing out the barista for being too slow on your matcha latte order instead of being on high alert when you hear a noise in the bush of the jungle. Anxiety is a broad term that covers a great deal of psychological ground. At one end of the spectrum, anxiety can be identified as the feeling before an exam or a job interview. This type of anxious response should be expected and is completely normal. (It is crucial to remember that increasing feelings of anxiety do not equate to a diagnosis of anxiety disorder).


Anxiety becomes a problem when it extends beyond logical worry in an unreasonable, unwarranted, uncontrollable way. Situations that should elicit no negative emotions all of a sudden seem life-threatening or crushingly embarrassing. This lingering feeling of anxiety can cause a lot of stress on the body and lead to a variety of unwanted side effects.


At the most extreme end of the spectrum, anxiety can arrive as a symptom of another mental illness, such as panic disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, phobias, or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).


Today, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting around 40 million adults — almost 1 in 5 people. In August 2018, Barnes & Noble — who are the largest book retailer in the United States — announced a huge surge in the sales of books about anxiety; a 25 percent jump on June 2017.


The American Psychiatric Association ran a poll on 1,000 U.S. residents in 2017, and they found that nearly two thirds were "extremely or somewhat anxious about health and safety for themselves and their families and more than a third are more anxious overall than last year.” They also noted that millennials were the most anxious generation.


Social media may play a part in the spread of anxiety culture in the U.S.. Social media allows us to constantly compare ourselves to the few frames other people share about their seemingly perfect and prosperous lives. This level of perfection is unobtainable, yet we continue this pursuit of the unobtainable by chasing the most expensive car, the dream vacation, the goal weight. One study published in the 1990s found that people who pursued money, looks, and status were more likely to feel anxious and depressed. Another study looking at changes in freshman attitudes over a 40-year period found that the number of students who place importance on financial gains has almost doubled since the 1960s, whereas "developing a meaningful philosophy for life" has dropped in importance dramatically.


Living alone may also be a contributor. People today are much more likely to live alone than they were 50 years ago. In the U.S. in 1960, under 7 percent of adults lived alone; by 2017, that figure had soared to well over one third of adults. Though living alone may sound like the ultimate fantasy to some, we are a social species and we require human connection in order to feel our happiest. In a Harvard study, researchers expected factors like cholesterol levels or physical activity to be the greatest predictors of a long and happy life. They weren't. It turns out that having strong personal connections with other people is most directly correlated to overall happiness, better health and more contentment. "


It is likely a wide variety of factors are contributing to the rise in anxiety culture. In addition to these points above, we are also faced with the impending doom of climate change, plastic islands in our oceans, over population, and political discourse. The world is rapidly changing all around us and it is okay to feel like nothing is okay from time to time. If you feel like your anxiety has become unmanageable, speak with a therapist to identify the sources and find solutions.