In 1947, W.H. Auden published a very long poem that, despite winning a Pulitzer Prize, is now remembered less for its contents than for its title: “The Age of Anxiety.” Something about the idea that an age can be anxious must resonate deep in America’s cultural bones, because the phrase has been used to describe countless moments since, from the vogue for tranquilizers like Miltown and Valium in the ’50s and ’60s to the coronation of today’s young adults as, in The New York Post’s recent estimation, “The Anxious Generation.” At this point, it’s difficult to imagine a slice of time whose resident humans would not agree with the notion that their lives were more hectically modern — more anxiety-inducing, more in need of the occasional benzo — than any before.
Few Americans, at the moment, would assess our national emotional state as anything better than “not great.” We are not in the midst of real disaster, of course: no Civil War, no Great Depression, not even that grim bit of the 1970s that featured near-constant bombings and hijackings, a presidential resignation and two different women trying to kill Gerald Ford in a single month. But when the new president referred to the country as a scene of “carnage” in his inaugural address, the objections were relatively muted. There’s a bleakness in the atmosphere, and a consensus on what to call it: “anxiety.”
(Best Criminal Lawyers in Arizona )For the past decade or so, American anxiety was usually described as either a mental-health issue or a generational style. Psychologically, we were steadily becoming more apprehensive than ever, with — according to the National Institute of Mental Health — 18 percent of people experiencing actual anxiety disorders in any given year. Generationally, the whole social attitude of younger adults changed: If some in the ’90s cultivated an air of depressive slouching, their modern counterparts developed an ethos of relentless worry and agitation. As a 2012 New York magazine article put it, “Panicked strivers have replaced sullen slackers as the caricatures of the moment, and Xanax has eclipsed Prozac as the emblem of the national mood.”
Then came 2016, the year that brought us to a point at which — as the British writer Matt Haig recently tweeted — it is difficult to tell “where your anxiety disorder ends and where actual news begins.” Somewhere in the midst of Donald Trump’s unexpected rise through the Republican primaries, “anxiety” took a sharp political turn. The shiny new phrase for explaining what animated his supporters was “economic anxiety,” two words that painted vivid pictures of families in Ohio or Indiana fretting over mortgage payments in a haze of factory closures, bad backs and shuttered diners. If that narrative didn’t satisfy, there were alternatives: racial anxiety, cultural anxiety, demographic anxiety. As the campaign entered its alarming final weeks, therapists reported widespread “election anxiety”; after its conclusion, just “Trump anxiety.”
This is not a nation that has ever been shy about self-diagnosing its jitters. Much like being a workaholic, it’s a problem we eagerly adopt as a badge of honor. During the second half of the 19th century, neurologists described a condition called neurasthenia, thought to have been brought on by the accelerating pace of modern life. The country’s upper classes were so familiar with its symptoms (fatigue, anxiety, irritability) that William James, a sufferer, called it “Americanitis.” As Andrea Tone writes in a 2008 book called, naturally, “The Age of Anxiety,” this malady “was regarded (much as anxiety would be in the ’50s) as the price Americans paid for their stunning success.”
Neurasthenia was assumed to affect the nerves. Around the same time, Freud began to isolate a purely psychological component: “anxiety neurosis,” a free-floating fear “ready to attach itself to any appropriate idea.” Predictably, as soon as this feeling was given a name, people saw it everywhere. Every decade birthed some new technology, social transformation or global turmoil that left people feeling as though they lived in a world-historical peak of tension and noise. Faced with that, what kind of person wouldn’t be anxious? Either someone too stupid to see what was happening or too lazy to care, right?
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Our current anxieties are the opposite of Americanitis. It’s not a rush of progress that’s said to be unsettling us; “economic anxiety” is shorthand for a wave of failure. To understand why that shorthand has lately proved so useful, it helps to remember what it’s like to experience anxiety. It is not a coherent fear of a particular thing, and it tends not to focus on the problems you already have. (A poor person’s immediate challenge isn’t “monetary anxiety”; it’s poverty.) Anxiety is the ambient apprehension that terrible things might happen and the physical response — tension, alarm, fight-or-flight vigor, snapping awake at 2 a.m. to check the president’s Twitter feed — that accompanies this feeling. As a way of describing the political behavior of millions, anxiety is irresistibly broad: All it really says it that people are expressing profound unease, even if they have incoherent or contradictory senses of why, or what it is they fear, or what should be done about it. It describes an emotion, not an analysis.
By the end of last summer, the assumption that “economic anxiety” was a straightforward political motivation had come under sustained attack, with dissenters pointing to the incomes of Trump supporters (higher than average), the antipathy toward Trump among many working-class people (especially nonwhite ones) and the more statistically persuasive connections between Trump support and attitudes about race. (For a while, “economic anxiety” became a wry joke on social media: Surely the racial slurs and anti-Semitic harassment appearing in your feed were really arguments for a more robust manufacturing sector.) But alternative theories about what was driving the election — racial anxiety, demographic worries, cultural reaction — still assumed people were emotionally, not ideologically, unsettled. And since one of the strange things about anxiety is how easily it can be made contagious, with one person’s quivering unease shattering the next person’s calm, this year so far has felt like a national exercise in reactive nervousness. Your angst might center on immigration or on a swelling deportation force, on the threat of North Korea or the safety of South Korea, but the expectation is that you will be racked by some sense of adrenalized dread over it.
We’ve reached a weird, quiet agreement that the most potent force in our politics is, for the moment, a stew of unease, fear, rage, grief, helplessness and humiliation. Anxiety, after all, need not be rational, need not be coherent, can contain multitudes. It’s possible to be anxious about things that will almost certainly never affect you; it’s possible for anxiety to prevent you from accurately assessing danger and making plans to address it. (This is how we remain more panicked by terrorism than medical bankruptcy.) Americans are acknowledging, more openly than we’re used to or comfortable with, that the life of the nation may not take place in a realm of issues and policy and consensus-building but someplace more disordered, irrational and human
A mainstay of 20th-century age-of-anxiety complaints was that our world was becoming too complex for anyone to keep track of or feel like a relevant participant in, full of strange and byzantine distances between individuals and the grand global forces affecting us. This feels as obviously true today as it might have to a midcentury reader of Kafka. You can argue with a store owner; you can’t argue with the call-center representative of the company contracted to maintain the point-of-sale machine owned by the other company contracted by the multinational conglomerate that owns the store. Freud connected psychological anxiety with birth and infancy, when human beings experience wrenching change they’re completely unequipped to make sense of. According to Michel Dugas, a psychologist at the University of Quebec, feelings of anxiety are closely connected to an inability to handle uncertainty. What might make human beings less anxious, it seems, is having a firmer sense of what in the world is happening and what’s likely to happen next. We seem temporarily short on both.
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A quarter-century ago, in the Prozac-not-Xanax era after the end of the first gulf war, we were worrying at these same uncertainties. In the 1991 novel “Generation X,” one of Douglas Coupland’s characters ventures that “the world has gotten too big — way beyond our capacity to tell stories about it, and so all we’re stuck with are these blips and chunks and snippets on bumpers.” A pressing national worry, right now, is that our dueling bumper-sticker snippets have nothing productive to say to one another. An unpleasant thought follows: that maybe the only thing that could relieve our national anxieties is something bad happening to us — something so clarifyingly awful that we’re forced to become solemn and still and agree about it.
CreditIllustration by Javier Jaén
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