Are we living in an ‘age of anxiety’? There is certainly no shortage of columnists, commentators, and experts who think so.
According to the Office of National Statistics, over 20% of the UK population rank their daily anxiety as ‘high’, while the charity Anxiety UK have predicted that some 6-7 million Britons will develop a ‘disabling anxiety disorder’ at some point in their lives.
Meanwhile, counselling service Childline has reported an 82% increase in calls from young people struggling with anxiety over the past four years. Political concerns are also reportedly having an effect, with some psychologists warning about the impact of ‘Trump Anxiety’ and ‘Brexit Anxiety’ on the nation’s mental health. This apparent onslaught of inner turmoil has led some to brand anxiety ‘Britain’s silent epidemic’.
Listen to a short podcast about anxiety
However, ours is not the first society to be defined by its worries. Indeed, ever since its use as the title of W.H. Auden’s epic 1947 poem, ‘the age of anxiety’ has been used as a short-hand for practically every major fear of the twentieth-century, from nuclear war to environmental collapse. As such, while widespread anxiety might seem to be a peculiar product of our own time, a longer history might offer some useful insights.
Even in the notoriously complicated world of emotions, anxiety appears to be a particularly difficult subject for historians. If anxiety is understood, as modern-day psychologists argue, as an ‘anticipation of future danger or misfortune’, we can begin to see why. Historians, thanks to the benefits of hindsight, know how events will play out in a given period. As such, it can be difficult to revive past anxieties and imagine a world in which the outcomes are still uncertain.
With this in mind, how might we go about writing a history of anxiety? One popular approach has been to focus on the development of anxiety as a medical condition. For some, this can be traced back to the philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome. As Roman statesman Cicero (106-43 BC) proposed, anxiety was a ‘disturbance of the mind’ that needed to be overcome through techniques of self-control that some have likened to modern Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). For others, anxiety emerges from the ‘nervous disorders’ described by seventeenth-century physicians such as George Cheyne, who argued that the English were particularly vulnerable to nervousness due to their wealth and inclement weather.
Most historians, however, focus on the nineteenth-century as the birth of ‘modern’ anxiety. In particular, many have focused on the theories of American neurologist George Miller Beard and his diagnosis of ‘neurasthenia’. Neurasthenia covered a variety of physical and mental symptoms – including headaches, stomach problems, irritability, and tiredness – supposedly caused by an exhaustion of ‘nervous energy’. According to Beard, this exhaustion was the result of the relentless pace of modern society, with steam power, mass-produced newspapers, and the telegraph producing a kind of ‘information overload’.
However, these attempts to find anxiety’s origins in the medical ideas of the past can be problematic. By searching for understandings of anxiety that mirror our own theories of brain activity, neurochemistry, and genetics, we risk ignoring the significant differences in belief and experience between modern sufferers of anxiety and their historical counterparts. Historical concepts of anxiety therefore demand to be understood on their own terms.
With this in mind, some historians have instead chosen to focus less on medical definitions of anxiety and more on the things people in the past were anxious about. This approach often involves focusing on worries that seem bizarre and perplexing to the modern observer and attempting to work out their underlying causes. Through this method, fears in the 1880s about being buried alive can be connected to debates between physicians and undertakers over the authority to define death; concerns about the marriages of those with poor eyesight can be related to broader anxieties about declining birth rates and physical degeneration; and, as explored in the podcast above, worries about golden syrup and greediness in the Second World War can be placed in the context of warnings about civilian breakdown and lawlessness under the pressures of conflict.
While these medical and social approaches to the history of anxiety offer a number of inroads into the condition, the possibilities are far from exhausted. In particular, current histories almost exclusively perceive anxiety as a disruptive and damaging force for both the individual and society. What might a history of anxiety look like if instead we consider, as philosopher Samir Chopra does, the creative potential of worry? As Chopra notes, concerns for our families, friends, and communities remind us that we are not ‘isolated beings whose boundaries terminate at our fingertips’ but part of something bigger. Perhaps, then, if we must suffer through another ‘age of anxiety’, we need not do it alone.
- Joanna Bourke, Fear: A Cultural History
- Jules Evans, Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations
- Francis O’Gorman, Worrying: A Literary and Cultural History
- Scott Stossel, My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind
- Sarah Wilson, First, We Make the Beast Beautiful: A New Story about Anxiety
From the History of Emotions Blog
- Polly Bull, ‘Managing the Pain of Separation, Depression and Anxiety through Reading in the Late Eighteenth Century’
12 July 2011
- Rhodri Hayward, ‘Insecurity Cameras: Nye Thompson, Surveillance Art and the Making of Modern Anxiety’
9 February 2018
- Charlie Kurth, ‘Life’s Anxieties: Good or Bad?’
6 June 2017
Other online sources
- Samir Chopra, ‘The usefulness of dread’
Aeon, 21 February 2018
- NHS advice on Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
- David Saunders, ‘The history of brainwashing is a red flag for techno-therapy’
Aeon, 28 August 2017