Another day, another grab bag of worries. Maybe you’re spending more money than you earn. Or you suspect that your kid’s blank stare might be a sign of autism. Last night’s episode of Desperate Housewives has you convinced that your wife is banging the plumber. You’d be able to enjoy the Fed’s latest interest-rate cut if you weren’t so preoccupied with the looming recession. Oh, and no need to install that pool you always wanted—there will be plenty of water in your back yard to swim in once the polar ice caps melt.
In so many ways we live in enchanted times. Thanks to the Web, if we want, we can answer client e-mails while watching sex tapes on YouPorn.com. We have enough leisure time to accessorize our iPods and polish our Priuses. We live in a country that’s at war, yet this affects our daily lives only when the guy from the TSA asks us to take the mouthwash out of our carry-on.
But talk to any guy over the age of 30 and you’d think he’s being persecuted in the same way Protestants were during the Spanish Inquisition. We’re a nation of nervous wrecks. Subprime mortgages, collapsing industries, toxic toys, sexual predators, “super“ microbes, geopolitical meltdown, disappearing rain forests—lately just getting through the day is like taking a cruise on the S.S. Hieronymus Bosch. And that’s without even taking into account paying bills, monitoring your sperm count, avoiding trans fats, backing up your hard drive, and keeping your teeth as white as Ryan Seacrest’s.
“We’re living in the safest time in human history,“ says Barry Glassner, a University of Southern California sociologist and author of The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things. “People live longer. Crime is down. And yet fear and anxiety are major national disorders. More and more people behave like they can’t cope. Where is the disjuncture?“
The first answer is that success in the modern world depends partly on being high-strung. According to scientists, in times of uncertainty we take survival cues from the part of the brain called the amygdala, which triggers the fight-or-flight response. The same gray matter that once had us outrunning woolly mammoths now has us stocking up on anti-bacterial cleansers, home-security systems, impact-resistant Escalades, and far crazier shit.
Following the shootings in Columbine, a couple of fortysomething dads from Boston named Mike Pelonzi and Joe Curran were so panicked they came up with My Child’s Pack, a kid’s book bag with a bulletproof back panel. They’ve sold more than 1,000 this year alone. Other parents, spooked by how competitive admission to top universities has become, pay college consultants like Michele Hernandez up to $40,000 a student to make sure there’s ivy on those acceptance letters. And guys as young as their late twenties are opting to have vasectomies rather than risk knocking up their honeys and being saddled with child-support payments. As Justin Moran, 29, recently told Salon, “I got tired of sweating bullets until Aunt Flo came for her monthly visit.“
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 ago—and 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.“
Acting like a Gloomy Gus at every cocktail party is no solution. “We’re reaching a point where people need professional intervention and hand-holding to deal with every imaginable quandary, whether it’s Are we disciplining our children properly?’ or How can I stay healthy?’“ Furedi says. “Thirty years ago that wouldn’t have been the case. If we don’t want fearing to become a way of life, we need to see that fear has a creative, positive dimension. Otherwise we start to crumble as a society.“
Ken Paprocki, a freelance photojournalist, got fresh perspective on the Age of Anxiety in America when he returned to Manhattan last year after covering the conflict in Afghanistan.
On assignment there, he was subjected to rocket attacks several times on a base near the Pakistani border and then in Kandahar. He rode on night patrols in a Humvee in a region where insurgents were active. Once, a taxi he was riding in was stopped by the Taliban at an impromptu roadblock.
But it wasn’t until he returned to New York that he understood what real stress was. “It was like going from a camel’s lope to riding a rocket,“ Paprocki says. “I felt fear in Afghanistan, but I was rarely worried. My only preoccupation was getting my shot and finding an Internet connection to send it off. But in New York, life is so utterly complicated that we are drowning in our daily regimen of tasks: networking, drumming up business, helping friends with meltdowns, dealing with family problems, trying to shoehorn fitness into the day, having to call tech support just to watch a DVD.“
So Paprocki now behaves in the way that so many of us do. He works like hell and then practices yoga, runs, or swims to maintain some semblance of peace before stressing out all over again. “I accept that worry’s part of the price of living an exciting, interesting life,“ he says. “But sometimes I think the real war’s happening right here, fighting to manage how hectic things are. If we’re not careful, we might kill ourselves just trying to keep up the pace.“