Sunday, June 11, 2017

The United States of Anxiety

Back in the day, before most of you remember, every time the pharmaceutical industry discovered a new psychoactive drug psychiatrists near and far discovered that all of their patients were suffering from the illness in question.

This is not to say, I underscore, that many of these medications—whether Thorazine, Tofranil, Valium, Lithium or Prozac- were not life-savers for those who suffered from mental illness. Of course, many of the conditions in question, from psychosis to bipolar disorder were physical conditions, not mental problems, but the truth is, for many people the drugs were miracle-makers.

We remember the massive marketing campaign to sell Prozac and the other SSRIs. True enough, these pills proved beneficial in treating many kinds of depression. This was especially important at a time when the world was still wallowing in psychoanalytic therapies that aggravated the condition.

And then, before you knew it, everyone was taking Prozac. Primary care physicians were handing it out like candy. As for its unwanted side effects, you could read about them occasionally in the press, but most people waved them off as part of the risk we assume when we take such medications.

Anyway, thanks to Prozac we were living in Prozac Nation. Now however, if we are to believe Alex Williams—I have no reason not to believe him—we are living in the United States of Xanax. A nicely turned phrase… kudos to Williams.

Does it mean that the market for SSRIs is saturated and that the medical profession has some new wonder drug in the pipeline? Does it mean that Xanax looks like it could gain more market share? After all, when Tiger Woods was recently found discombobulated in his car, one of the contributing medications was Xanax. Like Woods, everyone seems to be taking a cocktail of medications these days. It’s not a good thing. It would be a better thing if people could learn how to deal with everyday dilemmas. Of course, if they are following the instructions that I read about in New York Magazine's two therapy columns, one by Ask Polly and the other by therapist Lori Gottlieb, there is no way that they will ever learn that from their therapists. See yesterday's post, e.g.

As it happens, anxiety and depression are close cousins. People who suffer from anxiety often manifest depressive symptoms. But, since Prozac seems not to be working quite as effectively as it once was, psychiatrists want to know what they need to add to the cocktail in order to cause their patients to zone out completely. You may not think that it's good to zone out, but at least they will be feeling no pain. Often they will be feeling no pleasure, but, that's part of the price of admission.

So, via Williams, here’s a picture of anxiety:

This past winter, Sarah Fader, a 37-year-old social media consultant in Brooklyn who has generalized anxiety disorder, texted a friend in Oregon about an impending visit, and when a quick response failed to materialize, she posted on Twitter to her 16,000-plus followers. “I don’t hear from my friend for a day — my thought, they don’t want to be my friend anymore,” she wrote, appending the hashtag #ThisIsWhatAnxietyFeelsLike.

Thousands of people were soon offering up their own examples under the hashtag; some were retweeted more than 1,000 times. You might say Ms. Fader struck a nerve. “If you’re a human being living in 2017 and you’re not anxious,” she said on the telephone, “there’s something wrong with you.”

So, anxiety disorder is the new normal. Think about it: Sarah Fader has over 16,000 Twitter followers and she is in anguish over losing a friend. As for knowing what anxiety feels like, we can revel in the fact that Sarah Fader has offered a definitive answer to Bob Dylan’s seminal question: “How does it feel, to be without a home, like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone?”

As I have often noted, modern America is awash in anomie. Fader describes it well. Besides, how can you function in the world when your singular friend is, as Fader says, a “they.”

In our therapy culture people are far more concerned with knowing how it feels than in figuring out what to do about it. I would add that if someone fails to call you back within a day and you think you have lost a friend, there is something wrong with you. If  your friend does not call you in a day, call back. Don’t blame it on the culture or the political situation.

You have far more control over who are your friends than you have over the current political scene. If you think that your anxiety has been caused by politics you are writing yourself into an impotence that is feeding your anxiety.

If, indeed, it’s really anxiety. After all, Fader seems notably thin-skinned, like the snowflakes who are worrying about microaggressions. This is also a sign of depression, for anyone who cares.

Hypersensitivity to social slights characterizes a social being that is hanging by a thread, an individual who does not really connect, whose social contacts are more likely to be characterized by systematic rudeness and disrespect. If everyone is as into themselves as their therapists have told them to be, they probably have not done the work necessary to have a functioning group of friends and acquaintances.

To be fair and balanced here, one understands that the media has spent a considerable amount of time and effort ginning up everyone’s anxiety. Remember when Pres. Trump discarded the Paris Climate Accord. Reporters were camped out waiting for the apocalypse, for the end of the world. We were not quite as anxious as we were when Orson Welles announced that out planet had been invaded by Martians, but the media has done an excellent job of ginning up the anxiety—it’s good for ratings.

Williams explains:

… anxiety is starting to seem like a sociological condition, too: a shared cultural experience that feeds on alarmist CNN graphics and metastasizes through social media. 

Anxiety seems to be more common among girls than among boys—thank you, feminism—but one hesitates before drawing conclusions from the diagnostic habits of psychiatrists. Often they diagnose to the pills they have available and even to the diseases that the culture seems to favor.

Williams continues to explain how the culture has produced anxiety:

But monitored by helicopter parents, showered with participation awards and then smacked with the Great Recession, Generation Y has also suffered from the low-level anxiety that comes from failing to meet expectations. Thus the invention of terms like “quarter-life crisis” and “FOMO” (“fear of missing out,” as it is fueled by social media apps like Instagram). Thus cannabis, the quintessential chill-out drug, is turned into a $6.7 billion industry.

Sexual hedonism no longer offers escape; it’s now filtered through the stress of Tinder. “If someone rejects you, there’s no, ‘Well, maybe there just wasn’t chemistry …,’” Jacob Geers, a 22-year-old in New York who works in digital sales, said. “It’s like you’re afraid that through the app you’ll finally look into the mirror and realize that you’re butt ugly,” he added.

In truth, it might not be such a bad thing if the generation that grew up on self-esteemist policies and that has had its love of country, its very patriotism systematically undermined by the educational establishment should feel anxious about its future, about its ability to compete against peers in East Asia. On the question of teaching American patriotism, see a recent article by E. D. Hirsh. (Via Maggie’s Farm)

Students are taught to fight for social justice, to value diversity as an end in itself and to see education as a mental health exercise. They know, because their anxiety tells them so, that they are not being prepared to compete in the world. That they are not being trained to work hard and to make a living. They are being trained to be professional parasites, imagining that they are living off the wealth generated by others, but, in truth, living off of America’s superior capacity to run up mountains of debt.

Since we have been living in the United States of Anxiety for years now it seems like a cheap shot to blame it on Donald Trump. Williams does not do so. He takes a balanced approach:

But if Mr. Trump became president because voters were anxious, as a recent Atlantic article would have readers believe, other voters have become more anxious because he became president. Even those not distressed by the content of his messages might find the manner in which they are dispensed jarring.


James said...

"social media consultant in Brooklyn" well that kind of says it all.

Sam L. said...

Life is hard, and life is real. It's NOT like what we see on TV and the movies.

Ares Olympus said...

The ever expanding medication side is scary. And this blog didn't even talk about prescription painkillers and the expanding opiate addictions. Now that more white people are being afflicted, it becomes an issue worth addressing.

But meanwhile we have a AG who wants to increase criminal penalties, mandatory minimum sentencing in nonviolent crime of drug possession.
“If you are addicted to opiates, you’ll get White House attention and increased treatment options,” Miller said. “If you get picked up with crack in your pocket, you’ll get jail time and a mandatory minimum.

IAC says "Follow the money", and I think that's useful to consider in states where they're expanding private for-profit prisons, funded by tax-payers. A half empty prison doesn't make money for shareholders.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Actually, this blog has been writing about the opioid epidemic for years. How did you miss it?

Ares Olympus said...

p.s. I'm sorry, I agree. When I said "blog", I was referring to this specific day topic on anxiety. It looks like the proper term should be "blog post" to clarify.

incidentally, google can quickly find the recent ones:

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Two factors play into this anxiety: (1) the compression of change over time, and (2) we are awash in data, but have little information. This retards context, and creates fear of the future, whether it's economic turmoil brought on by labor arbitrage (destroying the USA's manufacturing base) or federal guarantees for banks peddling over-leveraged derivatives (fraud), or the fear that your kid's tricycle is going to kill him because of trace amounts of lead in the handle bars, which you found out watching the 11:00 news. We can't get along with our neighbors down the block, but we somehow believe national politicians (of both/all spectral varieties) who tell us centralized control is the solution to all our problems. We are sowing the poison of dependence, whether it's Xanax or magical money from Santa Claus in D.C. And the delivery mechanism for all this nonsense -- the Glowing Box -- distorts our sense of time and reality, making things seem more urgent, more painful and more threatening than they actually are. Wisdom says time heals all wounds. But why wait the test of time when you can pop a pill? That's the challenge of our age. We have enslaved ourselves to technology instead of being it's master. Yes, technology improves the quality of life when it serves humanity, but the daily phalanx of data pretzelizes our relationship to time, and it's making is into obsessive-compulsive chattering leprechauns with the patience of a gnat intoxicated with mind-eraser fluid. Not pretty. Maybe the drugs help, but we seem to have lost our understanding of how we arrived at the diagnosis. If every kids gets a participation trophy, what age will they have to be before they receive awards based on merit? We seem to have found a way to make the long human childhood even longer. What are we preparing them for? It certainly doesn't seem we're preparing them to understand, address and manage the human condition... the true and perpetual reality. All this endless entertainment and economic preparation seems to be wedging out an understanding of what it means to be a human person. How does one live a good life? That question seems roundly ignored. That's what scares me.

David Foster said...

If a person can't stand rejection in any form, there are whole universes of potential careers that are closed to him. Sales, for example. Plus anything that requires public performance...either live, or something that will be subject to reviews.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

David is right. The salesmen will always make the money. Great salespeople never have to worry about having a job... ever.

Shaun F said...

This line “I don’t hear from my friend for a day — my thought, they don’t want to be my friend anymore,” - reeks of immaturity. I see a grown up immature emotional child suffering from control issues and pride.

James said...

The greatest salesman I ever saw was a man named Charlie Fromme, he sold millions and millions of dollars of stuff to my Dad and others and he had one of the worst stutterers I have ever heard.