A global epidemic of anxiety

“It was 30 years ago this year that anxiety was first recognized as its own mental disorder,” says UPEI’s Dr. Ian Dowbiggin. “Today, it is diagnosed in more than three million Canadians. The World Health Organization says we have a global epidemic of anxiety in the 21st century.”

Dowbiggin is a Professor of History at UPEI, and author of several books and articles on the history of medicine, including "High Anxieties: The Social Construction of Anxiety Disorders," in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry. He’ll discuss some of his theories behind where the epidemic comes from at the next Research on Tap (details here).

“Before 1980, people who we today classify as having an anxiety disorder would have been lumped under the umbrella of depression,” says Dowbiggin. “But that reclassification doesn’t explain the explosion of anxiety in the decades since. I have some ideas.”

Dowbiggin blames what he calls our “illness-breeding”, and “illness-affirming” culture.

“We live in an age that is inherently stressful,” says Dowbiggin. “Students worry about grades. Parents worry about losing their jobs. We’re nervous about our relationships. Many are afraid of flying, or public speaking, or identity theft. I read an article the other day that said many people are experiencing anxiety about the fluctuating price of housing in the United States! The society we created for ourselves to live in is stressful.”

At the same time, Dowbiggin argues we’ve made it socially acceptable to feel anxious about our lives.

“And this is controversial,” says Dowbiggin. “Anxiety, I believe, has become a badge of honour. People go on Oprah, or Dr. Phil, and confess their anxiety, and are publicly validated. There is no stigma anymore to feeling powerless over our lives. Fifty or a hundred years ago, we would have told ourselves to suck it up and deal with it. Today, we say it’s okay to feel this way. And, by the way, here’s some medication for your problems.”

Psychiatric drug use, Dowbiggin explains, has gone up along with the diagnoses of anxiety. He says it’s very easy to be diagnosed, and the treatment is counselling, and drugs.

“Take a Prozac. Take a Zoloft. You’ll feel less anxious. But have we gone too far? Is this natural? Or, are we living lives that are much more stressful than our ancestors? The pharmaceutical companies call some forms of social phobia ‘allergic to people.’ Can you imagine? I think it’s worth asking whether we believe that what’s called the ‘caring industry’ has taken over.”

Join Dr. Dowbiggin for the next Research on Tap, Tuesday, October 5, at 7:30 p.m. in Mavor’s Bar in the Confederation Centre of the Arts. His discussion is titled “Why are we so anxious these days? Living in an illness-breeding and illness-affirming culture.” 

Photo used under a Creative Commons agreement.