The age of anxiety: a medical condition or just the new normal?

Excessive worrying is increasingly treated with drugs. But is it just part of being human?

This is the age of anxiety, the era of the benzodiazepine Xanax – "all jumpy and edgy and short of breath," as New York magazine puts it. Climate change, terrorism, recession – there's something for everyone to worry about, and a medication or a book to go with it. But is anxiety a medical condition or just the new – even not so new – normal?

"Anxiety is a necessary emotion; we need it to perform well," says Dr Natasha Bijlani, a consultant psychiatrist at the Priory in Roehampton, south-west London, "and life is no more dangerous than it ever was. But people's expectations are different – we're more achievement-oriented and we want a quick fix."

A fix such as Xanax (alprazolam)? Yes, though you can't get it on the NHS in the UK. Hugely popular in the US (48.7 million prescriptions were written for it there last year), it's known as the crack cocaine of benzos. It's similar to Valium but faster-acting and with a much shorter half-life – Valium stays in the system for 20 to 100 hours, Xanax for only six to 12. This is an advantage in some ways – less of a hangover – but accounts for its more addictive qualities. You want more and you want it now.

Anti-anxiety meds are nothing new. Miltown (meprobamate), the first blockbuster tranquilliser, became the toast of Hollywood in the 1950s. Lucille Ball, Tennessee Williams, Aldous Huxley, Norman Mailer and Salvador Dali's wife, Gala, were all fervent fans. Then came the benzos: Librium, followed by the wildly successful Valium, both developed by Leo Sternbach at Roche's plant in Nutley, New Jersey, and approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1963. Perfect for Cold War angst, more potent than Miltown, Librium and then Valium (developed because of Librium's bitter aftertaste) were also less toxic and sedating and set the way for the "codification of anxiety into medical pathology", as Andrea Tone puts it in The Age of Anxiety: A History of America's Turbulent Affair with Tranquilizers (Basic Books).

Paul Gilbert, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Derby and author of The Compassionate Mind, says that "our cognitive abilities are plumbed into an ancient anxiety system", and that in anxiety disorder, the threat/self-protection system – useful if to avoid being eaten by a lion – seems to be inflamed and easily activated, and that the amygdala, that part of the brain's limbic system that plays a vital role in the regulations of emotions, has become oversensitive. And – no surprise there – it's in the amygdala that the benzos concentrate their soothing, often addictive, magic.

We worry, states The New York Times, which has a whole section of its Opinionator blog devoted to exploring the navigation of the worried mind. "Nearly one in five Americans suffers from anxiety. For many, it is not a disorder, but a part of the human condition." Should this human condition be medicated? "Much better to learn how to tolerate distress," says consultant psychiatrist Dr David Veale, who recommends compassion-focused therapy (CFT), a type of cognitive behavioural therapy particularly effective with anxiety, "though it's much harder than benzos." In CFT, only just gaining a foothold in the UK with Professor Paul Gilbert and Dr Chris Irons in the vanguard, you learn to build up a "soothing system" that calms and comforts.

But sometimes, meds can tide you over a bad patch – not everyone gets addicted, after all. Joe, a teacher, whose anxiety achieved an "apocalyptic, political edge" around the time of the American election, when he couldn't sleep for worrying about whether Barack Obama would get in, calls his form of anxiety the "learnt doom and gloom" – all the long, pessimistic articles he was reading sent him over the edge. He felt "immobilised by angst" but Ativan (lorazepam), a benzo that's often prescribed for panic disorder, helped him to cope, short-term, with the daily stress of work, family and money problems and put the latest Atlantic piece in some sort of perspective.

Dee, a gerontologist, became so consumed with worry about her teenage son "lying dead in a gutter when out late" that she started taking a low dose of Prozac to help her to calm down. She stopped a few years later when her son was older but found herself still so racked by amorphous regret and anxiety that she has started taking it again. "I can't get off the track in my brain that goes over and over some bad thing – something I feel certain I should have done or something I fear could happen." She describes her anxiety as being like "veins in my brain, iron ore or something. When I'm gripped by it I try to imagine a laser penetrating my brain and zapping the awful thought."

A search for anxiety self-help books on Amazon yields more than 5,500 titles. Constable & Robinson publishes 57 anxiety-related books, including The Compassionate Mind Approach to Overcoming Anxiety by Dennis Tirch, the US guru of CFT. Anxiety is even a memoir genre: in The Little Book of Anxiety: Confessions from a Worried Life (Robson Press), Kerri Sackville (who is not a fan of meds as they "knock me out so I can't function") kicks off with her groundless fear of abandonment by her mother, progresses to teenage acne, skin-picking and fear of public toilets, on to obsessive fears about her husband having a fatal accident, paranoia about her friends hating her, and then motherhood, when she turns strangely calm (she knows child-related worries would take over completely so she blocks off all such thoughts) until her daughter gets an infected chickenpox spot and almost dies, at which her anxiety levels hike up a notch again.

"I believe I was a born a worrier," says Sackville, who lives in Sydney. "I have an anxious father, too, so I think it is a combination of genetics and upbringing. When you are around an anxious person you are more likely to feel anxious." Joe agrees. "I think I inherited my mother's brain chemistry. Now I understand her awful anxiety that my dad and I had to dodge and cater to. She was always a very early riser, and I feel I know what she was doing from 4am on – worrying, thinking in circles, consumed with shame."

Meds may come and meds may go – Xanax now far outsells Valium and Roche will close its Nutley plant next year as part of a streamlining operation – but panic disorder, anxiety, worrying: they'll go on for ever.

Life and Style
A nearly completed RoboThespian robot inside the Engineered Arts workshop is tested in Penryn, England. The Cornish company, operating from an industrial unit near Falmouth, is the world's only maker of commercially available life sized humanoid robots
techSuper-intelligent robots could decide destroying the human race is the kindest thing to do
News
The current recommendation from Britain's Chief Medical Officer, is that people refrain from drinking on at least two days a week
food + drinkTheory is that hangovers are caused by methanol poisoning
Life and Style
techConcept would see planes coated in layer of micro-sensors and able to sense wear and tear
News
Patrick Stewart in the classiest ice bucket to date
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
newsComedian Lee Hurst started trend with first tweet using the hashtag
News
scienceExcitement from alien hunters at 'evidence' of extraterrestrial life
News
newsRyan Crighton goes in search of the capo dei capi
Life and Style
Customers can get their caffeine fix on the move
food + drink
Extras
indybest

Arts and Entertainment
Actors front row from left, Jared Leto, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Ellen DeGeneres, Bradley Cooper, Peter Nyongío Jr., and, second row, from left, Channing Tatum, Julia Roberts, Kevin Spacey, Brad Pitt, Lupita Nyongío and Angelina Jolie as they pose for a
film
Sport
sport
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
Life and Style
Horst P Horst mid-fashion shoot in New York, 1949
fashionFar-reaching retrospective to celebrate Horst P Horst's six decades of creativity
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Software Developer (Java /C# Programmer)- London

    £30000 - £45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A global investment management fi...

    Senior Network Engineer-(CCIE, CCNP, Cisco, London)

    £65000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Engineer-(CCIE, CC...

    Senior Network Analyst - (CCIE, Cisco, CISSP)

    £70000 - £80000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Analyst - (CCIE, C...

    Senior Network Engineer-(Design, Implementation, CCIE)

    £60000 - £80000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Engineer-(Design, ...

    Day In a Page

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition