delanceyplace.com 12/13/10 - fear and anxiety

In today's excerpt - fear and anxiety. The average high schooler today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950s:

"When you think about it, it's one of the great ironies of our time: we now inhabit a modernized, industrialized, high-tech world that presents us with fewer and fewer legitimate threats to our survival, yet we appear to find more and more things to be anxious about with each passing year. Unlike our pelt-wearing prehistoric ancestors, our survival is almost never jeopardized in daily life. When was the last time you felt in danger of being attacked by a lion, for example, or of starving to death? Between our sustenance-packed superstores, our state-of-the-art hospitals, our quadruplecrash-tested cars, our historically low crime rates, and our squadrons of consumer-protection watchdogs, Americans are safer and more secure today than at any other point in human history.

"But just try telling that to our brains, because they seem to believe that precisely the opposite is true. At the turn of the millennium, as the nation stood atop an unprecedented summit of peace and prosperity, anxiety surged past depression as the most prominent mental health issue in the United States. America now ranks as the most anxious nation on the planet, with more than 18 percent of adults suffering from a full-blown anxiety disorder in any given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. (On the other hand, in Mexico—a place where one assumes there's plenty to fret about—only 6.6 percent of adults have ever met the criteria for significant anxiety issues.) Stress related ailments cost the United States an estimated $300 billion per year in medical bills and lost productivity, and our usage of sedative drugs has shot off the charts: between 1997 and 2004, Americans more than doubled their yearly spending on antianxiety medications like Xanax and Valium, from $900 million to $2.1 billion. And as the psychologist and anxiety specialist Robert Leahy has pointed out, the seeds of modern worry get planted early. 'The average high school kid today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950s,' he writes. Security and modernity haven't brought us calm; they've somehow put us out of touch with how to handle our fears.

"It wasn't supposed to be like this. After all, fear is truly our most essential emotion, a finely tuned protective gift from Mother Nature. Think of fear as the body's onboard security system: when it detects a threat—say, a snarling, hungry tiger—it instantly sends the body into a state of high alert, and before we even comprehend what's going on, we've already leapt to the safety of a fortified Range Rover. In this context, fear is our best friend; it makes all of the major decisions for us, keeps the personage as freed from tiger claws as possible, and then dissipates once the threat has subsided. ...

"What makes a person capable of keeping cool and doing their duty in terrifying situations like [these]? ...

"Fortunately—and not a moment too soon—a flood of cutting edge research from psychologists, neuroscientists, and scholars from all disciplines is now coming together to show us what fear and stress really are, how they work in our brains, and why so much of what we thought we knew about dealing with them was dead wrong. Picking a painstaking trail through the labyrinth of the brain, a neuroscientist from the bayou traces our mind's fear center to two tiny clusters of neurons, uncovering the subconscious roots of fear. Using a simple thought experiment, a Harvard psychologist discerns why our efforts to control our minds backfire, and why a directive like 'just relax' can actually make you more anxious. Employing one minor verbal suggestion, a group of Stanford researchers find they can make young test takers' scores plummet in a spiral of worry—or hoist them right back up. Across the nation, intrepid scientists are discovering why athletes choke under pressure, how the human mind transforms in an emergency, why unflappable experts make good decisions under stress, and how fear can warp our ability to think."

author: Taylor Clark
title: Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool
publisher: Little, Brown & Company
date: Copyright 2011 by Taylor Clark
pages: 10-12, 15
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