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Age of (Even More) Anxiety

To Worry Is Human; to Carry On, Divine
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WebMD Health News

The D.C. sniper. Bioterror. West Nile virus. Sept. 11. War abroad; terrorism at home. The threats and traumas multiply, yet there's little we can do about them. It's the age of anxiety.

It started building long before Sept. 11. A recent study showed that Americans reported much higher levels of anxiety in the 1990s than they did in the 1950s. By the 1980s, normal children had higher anxiety levels than psychiatric patients tested in the 1950s.

Douglas Mennin, PhD, director of the Yale Anxiety and Mood Center, specializes in the study of worry and generalized anxiety disorder.

"We have been seeing an increase in people with anxiety, especially those with pre-existing worries," Mennin tells WebMD. "The sense of security people feel has been decreased. Some people are still OK -- they have good coping mechanisms to deal with this. Others have been pushed a little farther over the edge and are not able to cope with what is going on."

Bob Rosenblatt, PhD, is a private-practice psychotherapist in Washington, D.C. He says the ongoing sniper attacks have added fuel to an already-raging fire.

"In the Washington area, we are not healed from our experience of Sept. 11," Rosenblatt tells WebMD. "This event sort of jacks everybody's anxiety level up another notch. My patients are talking much more about their sense of vulnerability and about being more scared."

Craig Katz, MD, director of psychiatric emergency services at New York's Mount Sinai Medical Center, notes that other periods of U.S. history have been full of terrible acts of war and terrorism. But he agrees that these are the most anxious of times for the current generation.

"My generation never knew this kind of anxiety before, but it is not new for us, or for New York City, or for Washington, D.C.," Katz tells WebMD. "Many generations are confronted with very real threats and stresses. The fact we don't even remember them any more is a good sign -- it demonstrates our resilience. This is the crossroads we are at now."

New or not, the anxiety is real. Yet most people don't focus their fears on snipers or terrorism. In times of stress it is everyday life that can begin to seem overwhelming.

"Typical worries become torqued up," Mennin says. "If people were worried about their relationships or jobs or finances, these are the worries that become worse."

It may not be a nice feeling, but anxiety in and of itself is not a bad thing. Rosenblatt says that normal anxiety motivates people to take actions that can protect themselves and their loved ones. What he calls "neurotic anxiety" makes a person unable to act.

"Natural anxiety helps you make good decisions about how to live your life and pay attention," he says. "Neurotic anxiety has you hiding under the bed or giving up your normal activities."

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