Throughout history, there has been a sense that the nebulous, difficult-to-describe feeling of ‘anxiety’ is something that sums up an entire generation. But has an ‘age of anxiety’ ever truly existed?
In 1947, W. H. Auden wrote ‘The Age of Anxiety’, a poetic sequence examining the ways in which a rapidly industrialising world was impacting individual subjectivity in the modern age. Subtitled ‘A Baroque Eclogue’, the long poem itself might not be the most quotable but the title of the collection has transcended all nuance. Since Auden, there have been many moments that might be characterised by mass anxiety in the face of modern changes – from the Satanic Panic building partly as a response to new ways of consuming music to our contemporary obsession with social media. As Daniel Smith notes in The New York Times, each epoch has perhaps found that Auden’s term – the ‘age of anxiety’ – resonates with their own particular problems to the point that it can feel as if we have reached ‘peak anxiety’ but this is far from a new diagnosis…
For ancient Greeks, the onset of an excess of bile might indicate a patient was in an anxious state. Hippocrates (460–379 BC), following the early science of the four basic humors, would have taken one look at those suffering from dysentry, rashes and bile as symptoms of sadness and fear. Feelings of melancholia (literally ancient Greek µέλαινα χολή for black bile) were seen to literally manifest as physical ailments. This ancient theory influenced medicine for over 2,000 years and although it is no longer part of the way we treat patients the relationship between body and mind continues to fascinate doctors.
Fast forward (somewhat wildly) to 2013 and there were 8.2 million cases of anxiety disorder in the UK. During the pandemic, figures showed that the equivalent of 19 million adults in Great Britain reported high levels of anxiety. Have we just got better at charting and diagnosing anxiety or are our conditions for living on the precipice of a mental health crisis?
Since the mid-century – when Auden’s poem seemed to sum up the nuclear age – psychologists have become much better at sorting, categorising and naming experiences of anxiety, there is a specific language of anxiety within medicine: Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) to phobia-related disorders and social anxiety disorders. In 1917, the American Psychiatric Association Manual listed 22 diagnoses. By 1994, the manual had evolved into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and listed 410 disorders over 886 pages. This categorising has also come under scrutiny – not least because it has been historically homophobic. Classification schemes also don’t apply cross-culturally, basing definitions on mostly American studies skewers the results and often see the Western perspective taken as universally applicable. Diagnosis can offer helpful definitions for how conditions people face but they can also lead to over-medicalisation. Only a year after Auden’s poem was published, the World Health Organisation included ‘mental illnesses’ in its sixth edition of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) in 1948. As evolving understandings of diagnosis improve perhaps there is a sense about which times are steeped in anxiety and how the language used to discuss generational mental health.
Michel J. Dugas, of Penn State University, further complicates the language we use to understand our times by suggesting we are actually living in an ‘Age of Uncertainty’ rather than anxiety. As he puts it, patients with generalized anxiety disorder “are highly intolerant of uncertainty” or even, as he puts it, “allergic to uncertainty”. In Google’s Ngram Viewer, which produces a graph that represents the use of a particular phrase in books through time, we see a huge uptick in the word ‘uncertainty’ between the years 1980-2021. This graph suggests that authors have begun to reflect on our own ‘age’ as an uncertain one – and magnifying the sense of unease that can be characterised as anxiety.
And yet, Yuval Noah Harari’s bestseller Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow reiterates over and again how modern times have seen a decrease in certain facets of uncertainty and writes that “at the dawn of the third millennium… we have managed to rein in famine, plague and war”. This claim of course comes with caveats but Harari is pointing to how the biggest threats to humanity are evolving and that we have become more conscious of our own effect on the issues of today. Indeed, in asking “how can we protect this fragile world from our own destructive power?” Harari might induce even more anxiety as we are asked to assess how our individual actions affect broader society.
In ‘The White Album’, essayist Joan Didon explored the anxious end of the 1960s, when the utopian hopes of hippydom were turning into bleak, slippery glimpses of an individualised future. Didon opens by reflecting on the power of the stories we tell ourselves – and what happens when you start to lose a grip on your own arc and your own classifications for living a ‘good’ life:
“I was meant to know the plot, but all I knew was what I saw: flash pictures in variable sequence, images with no “meaning” beyond their temporary arrangement, not a movie but a cuttingroom experience”
The “cutting-room experience” seems an apt metaphor for anxiety. The choppy cut-and-paste of panic, multiple scenarios flashing across your mind, the potential for disorder counteracted with the almost comforting sense that worry might act as a safety net. For Didion, the lack of meaning in the modern world prompted an estrangement from herself. This points to the socio-economic reasons that anxiety is exacerbated. In our own time of polarised politics and pandemics, the “cuttingroom experience” is heightened by 24-hour news and access to ongoing opinions. The stories we are currently telling ourselves have become bigger, bolder, scarier – and our own place within our fragile ecosystems more uncertain. In an increasingly interconnected world, our access to global uncertainty is unprecedented, meaning this ‘age of anxiety’ is grappling with stories that have become more nuanced.
What is for certain is that anxiety, from melancholia to modern diagnosis, is an emotion that has run throughout the ages. We are just the latest humans to ride the wave.
If you need to reach out for help or advice for anxiety, the Anxiety UK National Helplife is open This service is open 9.30am–5.30pm, Monday–Friday (except bank holidays).