How much do we understand about anxiety today?
Do we understand more about anxiety than we used to?
- or less?
With the flood of self-help books, psychologists, scientists, counselors, TED talks, bestselling authors, respected experts, and celebrity gurus today, we often take for granted that we understand anxiety extremely well – or at least, much better than “they” did in ye olden times.
We see technology like computers, phones, and selfie sticks and often imagine that things always continually improve.
When we see the progress in fields such as physics, chemistry, or medicine, we might presume that things only get better in every field.
Today, we often assume a world that consists entirely of progress, that things only evolve and move in a straight line in one direction only – the direction of evolution – and therefore, “things only get better.” Things never devolve, or go backward. We learn, but never forget.
But is that really the case?
To think at all differently is often seen as “negative,” which “isn’t cool.” We might find that we've become disciples in some sort of "religion of continual progress."
But cool or not, we can ask:
Is it true?
– specifically in the case of anxiety?
Do we know more about anxiety than we used to, or less?
Here’s some evidence to consider.
The above shows anxiety levels between 2008 and 2018. (Source: https://jonathanhaidt.com/anxious-generation/ )
So, anxiety levels skyrocketed between the years of 2008 to 2018.
But maybe something unusual was happening during those years to throw off the numbers. (2008 might have been an exceptionally great year, for example.)
But what about before 2008?
OK, so anxiety levels skyrocketed between 2000 and 2012, and then they skyrocketed even more until 2018.
But what about after 2018?
Well, here’s one data point, Exhibit C:
“Rates of anxiety and depression among U.S. adults were about 4 times higher between April 2020 and August 2021 than they were in 2019.
But maybe even this 20-year view is too narrow. What about a longer time period?
Based on this, we can ask a few basic questions.
Has our understanding of anxiety really evolved and improved over time?
If so, why have anxiety levels been rising so dramatically?
If our understanding of anxiety has evolved (instead of devolved), shouldn’t we now have a better grasp of what exactly anxiety is, what causes it, and what we can do about it? Shouldn’t we generally have fewer people experiencing anxiety instead of more? If anxiety worked the way technology seems to - continuous improvement - shouldn’t we be less anxious overall, not more?
Is there a chance that we understand less about anxiety today than we did in the past?
Is there a chance that we've been losing a certain knowledge that used to keep anxiety at a distance - but recently, we've been forgetting?
There’s a story that captures a "Great Forgetting" well.
Flowers for Algernon tells the tale of a man whose IQ dramatically increases from 68 to 195. He suddenly becomes profoundly perceptive and intelligent.
But (spoiler alert) his condition then reverses course. It regresses back to its earlier levels.
Some of the most poignant moments happen when he realizes his predicament – that he’s peaked and is now in decline. Being self-aware, he understands that he's losing something. (That self-awareness soon vanishes as well. Before long, he forgets, and forgets that he's forgotten. He no longer knows, and stops knowing that he ever knew.)
Luckily, we aren't necessarily in the position of Algernon. We aren't necessarily destined to become worse, and almost always sense that we have the potential to get better.
But this can serve as an antidote to a blind, unexamined faith in automatic progress.
It can lead us to ask a few more questions.
Is there a chance that today, despite smartphones and widescreen televisions, we understand less about anxiety – and human nature itself – than we used to?
Is there a chance that we’re in danger of forgetting even what we know now?
If so, what can we do to reverse it?
More to come. Stay tuned.