Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The United States of Xanax

A recent NY Times article caught my eye. No, I do not subscribe to the Times (or any paper for that matter), but this story was found sitting next to me as I recently awaited a flight. The headline was "An Anxious Nation," but when I looked it up online for this post the name had been changed to "Prozac Nation is Now the United States of Xanax." 

The NY Times reports that Americans are anxious. One source cited in the article claims that “If you’re a human being living in 2017 and you’re not anxious, there’s something wrong with you.” That may be just a bit disconcerting for the rest of us I guess. But, perhaps it is just a matter of vernacular, as the author suggests that we are perhaps merely using the word "anxious" more often and more freely. It is suggested that it "has become our everyday argot."

The analysis draws a comparison between anxiety and depression, which the article stresses "are medical conditions," but suggests that "anxiety is (also) starting to seem like a sociological condition." And, the suggestion is that it may begin with over-scheduled, helicoptered youth targeted on the successful end-game, with too little focus on just growing up. It suggests that anxiety has become a "shared cultural experience" that is spread to us all through constant exposure to news and social media. In support of this hypothesis, it is suggested that today's "it" diversion, the fidget spinner" has found a home with a great many people, an endless expenditure of "nervous energy rendered in plastic and steel." 

The Times notes that youth from 13 through 17 have high volumes of diagnosed anxiety disorders, between 26% and 38% depending on gender. Anxiety is said to be "the most common  mental health concern" on American college campuses, surpassing depression. Thus, the revised article title reference to Prozac (for depression) and Xanax (for anxiety and panic disorder). College students report that they suffer from anxiety, having focused for years on success. 

One student described how " the pressure began building in middle school when she realized she had to be at the top of her class to get into high school honors classes, which she needed to get into Advanced Placement classes, which she needed to get into college." This is a cycle that I have certainly heard over years of parenting and extra-curricular activities. The quoted student has seen two effects. First, she now attends prestigious University of Michigan. But, she also has "has A.D.H.D., anxiety and depression."

The Times attempts to draw comparisons between the generations, suggesting there is some logic in the evolution from diagnoses of depression to anxiety. There is suggestion that faith in national leadership has affected generations, who have little belief in those who might explain to them where they fit in the grand scheme of life. The Times lauds a former "low key" President and laments "a fast-talking agitator from New York," but seems to ignore that America's anxiety is not a months-old phenomena. 

There is a conjecture that people lack self-confidence, foisted persistently on the petard of social media. Conversation is perceived as a dying art. A trip to virtually any eatery will surround you with groups in social outings, but submersed in their individual digital nirvana. I recently saw a group of youths sitting and keyboarding. There erupted a coincidental laugh by all present. I inquired how that coincident was choreographed, and learned this group was sitting together, but was texting with each other in "conversation" rather than speaking. Their out-loud laughter a spontaneous human reaction to their techno-interaction. 

The Times suggests that anxiety stems from "the Cold War, staring China, North Korea, and Russia." But, it conveniently omits mentioning that the Boomers who grew up in the real Cold War had Armageddon drilled into them, from the nightly news, to school-sponsored "duck and cover drills," (which drills the Times does acknowledge later in the discourse). And, despite that very real Cold War on the heals and memories of the greatest war in history, fought by America's Greatest Generation, anxiety was still not so prevalent in the 1970s and 1980s. 

The Times seemingly struggles to associate this anxiety with the current state of America, and ignores the Billy Joel adage that "the good ole days weren't always good." The 1930's brought economic devastation, the 1940's brought unprecedented global war, the 1950's a chilling Cold War, the 1960's unrest, protest, and violence, the 1970's the Great Inflation. Sure, the 1980's might seem a respite, but only because you choose not to remember Sammy Hagar, Twisted Sister, and the Scorpions (just examples). As Berkely Breathed reminded us periodically of the 1980's "there's a whoooole lotta higgledy-piggledy happening out there," and there was.   

Perhaps the problem is not that the world is in a state of confusion, conflict and disarray. That situation has seemingly been fairly consistent (I cannot remember a time when there was no violence or discord in the middle east, can you?). Perhaps the problem might be addressed by something other than lamenting the passing of the "good ole days" (that weren't always good), and wishing. 

The Times article, despite its various wild pitches, does perhaps identify one of the real issues. That is the access to information. Perhaps in the 1970's we could all just choose to ignore the nightly news. Perhaps it was easier, before social media and the 24 hour news networks, to simply ignore some or all of what was going on around us? Perhaps we were happier with believing we were overweight, athletically challenged, unskilled, awkward, shy and more without some "shamer" reinforcing our individual weaknesses?

But, I recently listened to a program that may bring another aspect to light. This speaker, whose name I missed while driving, lamented that the great onslaught of helicopter parenting, participation trophies, and more have produced a generation or two of Americans that don't deal well with adjusting. The speaker suggested that all of those painful childhood experiences (not getting picked for the team, not being invited to the party, not having a date for the dance) all confronted us with uncomfortable and painful results. 

That speaker claimed that we are who we are today because we were forced by those experiences to get back up, dust ourselves off, and move on. The suggestion is that by making our world "safer" (emotionally and physically, but certainly artificially) for children in recent decades we are depriving them of those challenges, defeats, and resulting opportunities to recover, learn, and grow. 

I am no psychologist. But, I see some merit in The Times' quote of Mr. Stossel that “Every generation, going back to Periclean Greece, to second century Rome, to the Enlightenment, to the Georgians and to the Victorians, believes itself to be the most anxious age ever.” And in that vein, so that you understand that I am not parent-bashing, perhaps every generation of parent perceives itself to be the most challenged. Each generation of parents has undoubtedly intended the very best results and success for the next generation. 

So, while there may be plenty about which to be anxious, perhaps we can find solace in Billy Joel (no, not the "good ole days" quote). Let's perhaps instead "keep the faith," "listen to our 45's" and remember it is "wonderful to be alive," whatever that brings. And, if someone decries your truth or opinion on social media or the nightly news, turn it off. Who needs them anyway?

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