The trouble is, even as we take such precautions, the worries keep mounting. A new study by the American Psychological Association reports that 48 percent of Americans say they are more stressed now than they were five years agoand the same percentage regularly suffer from insomnia thinking about all the stress. More than half the respondents said worry causes conflict with loved ones, and more than three quarters said it wreaks havoc on health, whether it’s stress headaches (44 percent), stomach troubles (34 percent), or teeth gnashing (17 percent). Sound familiar?
In the past, societies generally rallied against threats, real and imagined, from the outside, be it the Cossack at the door or the Red menace that spawned the duck-and-cover drills of the fifties. Today, fear itself has become the problem.
“Our fears are now fragmented to the point where one person’s fear is almost always different from the fear of the person next to him,” says Frank Furedi, a sociologist at the University of Kent in England. In other words, instead of one bogeyman, there are now countless ones: identity thieves, E. coli, the guy on the subway who smells like Muenster. At the same time, we have never shared our fears more promiscuously. As Furedi says, “The fear of terrorism gives way to the fear of a flu pandemic, which gives way to fears about global warming, which give way to worrying about childhood obesity.” If this doesn’t make you nervous, it should. As we swing from fear to fear, we keep raising the stakes in the cycle, Furedi says: “The only way to get rid of one fear is to replace it with something even scarier.”
Here’s how that vicious cycle might manifest itself in day-to-day life. One week you’re worried about the new mole on your shoulder. The next, you’re paralyzed by the prospect of paying 20 grand a year for private kindergarten. The next, you’re wondering if the baby-faced new hire at work was brought in to replace you. This nebulous worry state is so common, psychologists have a name for it: “high trait-anxiety.” Those who suffer from it remain anxious even when the biopsy results are okay and there’s plenty of money in the bank.
If you’re that guy, you don’t have the ability to distinguish between false alarms (mad cow disease in our burgers) and the real deal (the heart disease that kills 700,000 people a year). “A majority of the things we worry about have a low probability of danger in reality,” says Glassner, who blames the media, politicians, and marketing for hooking us on false fears. “Where there are careers and money to be made, there’s fear-mongering,” he adds. “CNN gets good ratings reporting on missing children, so we live in fear of child abductions. The organic-food business thrives on our fear of pesticides and additives. Politicians spread fear to scare us into voting for them.” But there is hope: Arm yourself with information. “Too often decision-making paralyzes people,” says investigative journalist Mark Schapiro, author of Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power. “Taking action, even if it’s just finding out more about what’s worrying you, throws a blanket on anxiety.”