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Dear Therapist, 

Q: More and more people seem to be suffering from anxiety these days, as evident from your latest Ask the Therapist column. I am curious to understand why this is so. I had once assumed that anxiety stemmed from enduring a traumatic experience or growing up in a toxic home. But now it seems, sufferers, myself included, have generalized anxiety and are worried about nothing in particular. I would love to hear an explanation from Mr. Rand on why he thinks this is so prevalent. I know of two other girls in my high school class who also suffer from anxiety and are on special medication just so they can manage day to day

Thanks for the question- 

A: Anxiety worry and fear can all refer to the uncomfortable sensation and/or emotion that we experience when we have a perceived threat in front of us. This can come from a threat to our safety, a threat to our relationships and social standing, or anything else that’s important to us. In a past column we discussed some of the different kinds of anxiety disorders may look like and some basic tips on how they are treated.

To address your specific question; while it is true that experiencing a trauma and/or growing up in a toxic home can lead one to develop an anxiety disorder, there are many other things that car trigger one. We believe today that the source of all mental illness is a combination of nurture and nature. Our experiences and our inherited genes. And there are many types of stressors that can trigger a disorder.  

You asked why it seems that there is an increase in anxiety disorders.  In August 2018, Barnes & Noble, the largest book retailer in the United States, announced a huge surge in the sales of books about anxiety; a 25 percent jump on June 2017. “We may be living in an anxious nation,” one press release noted.” 

But we need to ask; does this surge in interest reflect a genuine spike in anxiety, or are people simply more aware of it?

Most statistics that measure mental illness in the US estimate that about 18% of the US population every year will suffer from an anxiety disorder. While that does seem like a large amount we still need to question if the statistics are rising or have remained the same over time. 

When trying to access the research on this it became clear that there are no clear answers to this question period most data seems to show that things have remained the same. That being said, there aren’t many reliable studies about this. 

There are those that argue your point and strongly believe that the numbers are increasing.   One explanation offered for teens points at 3 possible contributing factors. 

  1. An increased pressure and high expectations to succeed in school
  2. A world that feels scary and threatening. There have been an increase in school shootings and we have access to all the details some of which we might be better off now knowing. There have been terrorist attacks here in the US and around the world taking many lives. From just watching or reading the news, it is reasonable for anyone to feel afraid in public spaces that previously would have felt safe.
  3. Social Media. Yes, Mark Zuckerberg against takes some of the blame. We have made ourselves reliant on “collecting” friends, receiving positive comments, and getting “likes”.   

For adults others suggests that our gaze has moved away from survival and shifted inward. In other words, as technology advances and we no longer have to worry as much about our actual survival, that can lead us to start thinking about other things. And adults can be “victims” of the effects of social media just as much as teens if not at times, more . Rabbi Twerski argues that perhaps the greatest challenge of our generation is around low self esteem. That can be a major contributing factor of anxiety in addition to depression. If I don’t feel like I measure up, that might lead me to avoid trying to build your relationships. I might decide not to pursue things that would interest me because of a fear of failing. I might worry about so many things outside of me needing to go well because inside I’m feeling empty or down. 
Living in a Frum community can have many benefits from all the kindness that people do for one another. But perhaps in some communities it also comes with additional social pressures.  There is a popular book titled “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff and its All Small Stuff”. Perhaps they are on to something 🙂

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