The age of anxiety: a growing ‘modern plague’

Breaking free: Psychologists say sufferers should try to break the ‘vicious cycle’ of anxiety.

A new report has shed light on the ‘anxiety epidemic’ that is sweeping through rich countries and haunting the lives of young people. Why do so many of us feel like we cannot cope?

Last month, the actress Kristen Bell sat down for a short YouTube interview. Shot in tasteful black and white, she gave an honest, earnest account of her ongoing struggles with mental health: ‘I shatter a little bit when I think people don’t like me,’ she admitted. ‘I struggle a lot with anxiety.’

Bell is not alone — in fact, her experience would not surprise researchers from Cambridge at all. The university has released a new report which finds that women are twice as likely as men to suffer from anxiety. Under-35s are also more likely to be affected, particularly in developed countries. It concludes that across the globe, around 4% of the population has an anxiety disorder.

And that is just those who have been diagnosed. Countless more experience the symptoms of anxiety without asking for help — according to the Prince’s Trust, a third of young women have panic attacks, along with one in ten young men.

For outsiders, it can be difficult to understand what makes anxiety so much worse than normal feelings of worry. But it can be ‘debilitating’, says the report’s author Olivia Remes. It all comes down to how the feelings are experienced: nerves about an exam which motivate you to revise are normal; panic attacks which stop you from sitting it are not.

There can be many other symptoms — shortness of breath, palpitations, insomnia — but a good rule is that if your everyday life is being affected, there is something wrong.

So what is making young people so anxious? Scientists do not know for sure, but there are plenty of theories. The psychologist Pieter Kruger blames social media for instilling a permanent sense of FOMO, and distorting expectations of reality. Psychologist Barry Schwartz blames the ‘paradox of choice’: in a world where Tesco sells 200 types of milk, people are paralysed by their own freedom. Meanwhile, author Julie Lythcott-Haims blames ‘helicopter parents’ for ‘robbing kids of the chance’ to grow up.

Worried sick

Clearly modern life is to blame, say some. Despite the wealth and luxury that surrounds young people in rich countries, they are far more likely to be anxious than their counterparts in developing nations. It is a phenomenon that some psychologists have nicknamed ‘affluenza’: money does not buy happiness. In fact, it seems to do the opposite.

That is not entirely true, say others. Everyone is prone to anxiety and other mental health issues — it is just that developing nations have other problems to focus on, and different ways of understanding mental health. Anxiety was not caused by wealth; but by getting rid of disease and hunger, it has been allowed to surface. Now that it is out in the open, we can begin to face it head on.

You Decide

  1. Is anxiety a ‘luxury’ of the modern age?
  2. What is causing young people to feel so stressed and anxious?


  1. The ‘vicious cycle’ illustrated above can cause anxiety to escalate quickly, so sufferers are often advised to find a way to break it. At which point is this easiest? Discuss your ideas with a partner. If you can, write three practical tips.
  2. Use these tips, and your own research, to produce a short video or article which advises young people on how to cope with anxiety.

Some People Say...

“There is no difference between mental and physical illness.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I’ve never had bad anxiety. Is it really a big deal?
For people with anxiety disorders it can be a very big deal, but it is not always obvious. Many look calm and successful on the outside, but are suffering on the inside. That is why it is important to talk about anxiety, and begin chipping away at the stigma attached to it.
I have horrible anxiety. How can I cope?
If anxiety is seriously affecting your daily life, seek help from a doctor. In the meantime, there are little things you can do to manage your symptoms, like eating well, exercising or meditating. Remember that the ‘vicious cycle’ can be broken — if you find yourself thinking anxious thoughts, remind yourself that they are not facts, and you do not need to listen to them. There is more help under Become An Expert.

Word Watch

Kristen Bell
The Frozen actress says she has been on medication for depression and anxiety since she was young. She has praised her mother for talking openly with her about mental health since she was 18.
The report surveyed 48 recent studies on anxiety, and gave an overview of the research. The scientists involved said that more research needs to be done to find out which other groups are at risk.
4% of the population
This figure has not changed much since 1990. In the EU, the researchers say around 60m people have anxiety. In the UK, it is 8.2m.
Panic attacks
Sudden feelings of acute anxiety which you cannot control — it may feel like having a heart attack or being unable to breathe.
Fear of missing out.
Helicopter parents
Overprotective parents, nicknamed because they are ‘hovering’ over their children instead of letting them learn for themselves.
Developing nations
Compare North America, where eight in every 100 people are affected, to East Asia, where the figure is just three in 100.

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