The news that Sarah Taylor – England’s World Cup-winning wicketkeeper and second highest women’s international run scorer – has decided to hang up her gloves for good because of anxiety and panic attacks is not only a huge blow for her but also raises an increasingly-asked question; are levels of anxiety in the population worse now than they have ever been? Certainly more celebrities seem to be talking openly about their anxiety – big name stars like Lady Gaga, Adele and Oprah Winfrey have been up front about their struggles with the condition.
The answer to the question of whether or not levels of anxiety are increasing is a complex one, with the bald facts seeming increasingly stark. One in five people in the UK suffer significantly high anxiety levels at any one time with stress and anxiety causing a third of all work-related health problems. Some estimates have the annual cost to the country in lost productivity and reduced quality of life at the £100 billion mark, and there is also now some evidence that even low levels of anxiety may increase our mortality risk.
From behind my side of the doctor’s desk I have certainly seen a rise in the numbers of people attending with anxiety-based symptoms in the last decade but is the modern generation more anxious than, say, that of my parents during or after the Second World War?
Anxiety is probably best described as feelings of worry or fear that can range from very mild to extreme and severe. Although all of us experience anxiety at some point in our lives, if this becomes uncontrolled then the feelings of anxiety impact on our daily lives. Anxiety is the main symptom of several conditions, including panic disorder, phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and social anxiety disorder (social phobia). Physical symptoms include a fast heart rate or palpitations (the sensation of having a thumping heart), nausea, rapid breathing, shaking and sweating, a dry mouth, dizziness and chest pain. I describe anxiety as being abnormal in a patient if it is out of proportion to the stressful situation or persists when the stressful situation is over.
Although traditional triggers for anxiety remain – such as loneliness, poor health, poverty and relationship problems – some have reduced slightly in recent generations due to factors such as improved medical care. However, modern technology has introduced a new raft of anxiety-triggering problems that were not present 20 years ago and which seem to have a significant effect on younger people. Social media does appear to be linked to social anxiety, especially impacting on those who feel their lives are not as they should be when they repeatedly see images and blogs of people appearing to be living the perfect life in terms of wealth and appearance, along with the phenomenon of ‘always feeling on’ due to 24-hour connectivity.
There is also the paradox that the more ‘virtual’ friends you may have on social sites, the more disconnected from true friendship you may feel, so increasing feelings of low-level anxiety. With over half of all mental ill health starting by the age of 14 and 75 per cent developing by the age of 18, technology anxiety can easily pour petrol onto the flames of an existing problem.
Although hard figures are difficult to come by, it is probably the case that the previous generation was, as a population, about as anxious as we currently are. However, greater anxiety awareness and a completely new set of technology-linked anxiety triggers now means that its impact is nearer the surface, especially in an expanding population. Mental health services must be given the tools to deal with demand.
Fortunately effective treatment continues to develop, especially specialised cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) programmes which can provide good long-term help, with medication often being effective in the shorter-term.
Being mildly anxious from time to time is entirely normal. Being anxious all the time is not. The most important way to start treatment however can often be the hardest – telling someone you have a problem – but is the vital first step in starting to feel better both now and in the future.