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American anxiety: Why we're such a nervous nation

The number of men and women suffering from acute anxiety is increasing, and experts say our stressful, fast-paced lifestyles are not helping. NBC's Dr. Nancy Snyderman reports on the 1200 percent increase in the number of people suffering from anxiety since 1980.

 We’ve become a very tense and anxious nation.

Millions of us are kept awake at night by racing thoughts and are so edgy during the day that our blood pressure skyrockets and our hearts pound -- even though there’s no real threat in sight.

Over the past three decades anxiety disorders have jumped more than 1,200 percent, with as many as 117 million adults in the U.S. reporting high levels of anxiety, studies indicate.

“Some experts point to our high-paced, stressful lifestyle as feeding fear, issuing in this new age of anxiety,” NBC news chief medical editor, Dr. Nancy Snyderman said. “I think we’re looking at almost the perfect storm. We’ve underdiagnosed it in the past and we’re probably overdiagnosing it now. We ramp it up in each other.”

Some manage on their own to cope with the tension, obsessive thoughts and sleepless nights. But many are disabled by their anxiety, unable to work or even go out in public.

“It can really lead an individual not to leave their home,” Dr. Moira Rynn, an associate professor of clinical psychiatry at the New York State Psychiatric Institute/ at Columbia University told TODAY. “It can lead individuals to lose their jobs. Anxiety becomes a problem when it’s keeping you from doing your everyday activities or functions.”

And therein lies the crux.

We were designed to feel some anxiety. Back when humans lived on the savannah as hunter-gatherers, they needed to be constantly on guard for threats. The world was a very dangerous place and if you were complacent you might be eaten by a wandering saber-toothed tiger.

So we evolved to have a very sensitive fight-or-flight response to get us out of the way when there was even a hint of a threat. Even in today’s world, that fight-or-flight response protects us, telling us to avoid the growling dog or jump out of the way of the car speeding our way.

Now that response can be sparked by stress from work and other problems of daily life. That doesn’t necessarily mean stress is bad.

“Stress is a natural motivator for people in the work force,” Snyderman said. “Stress is what helps us avoid trouble. But anxiety is what happens when it interferes with your normal workday. You’re afraid to leave the house. You have such rampant thoughts that you can’t get a project done. You’re lying in bed and you’re already worried about what’s going to happen the next day.”

Normal stress crosses into anxiety disorder when it causes a response “above and  beyond what’s expected,” Rynn said. “Someone who really feels that their mind is constantly on a sort of red alert.”

Anxiety can occur even when there’s no specific cause or trigger and anyone, even children, can develop the disorder. As Rynn noted, the main symptom is constant worry or tension over various issues, such as work or family problems, money or health.

According to the National Institutes of Health, anxiety symptoms include:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Problems falling or staying asleep; restless sleep
  • Restlessness; becoming easily startled

The jump in anxiety diagnoses has been linked to the modern American, fast-paced lifestyle and the drive to get ahead. One big driving force for anxiety, says psychiatrist Dr. Gail Saltz, is the gap between our high expectations and our ability to fulfill them.

People ask themselves, “How am I financially going to make it?” Saltz said on TODAY Monday. “How am I going to be as successful as I feel I should be?”

The good news is that there are therapies that can help get an anxious person’s life back on track. For some, that may mean one of the many effective medications. But for others, it can simply be lifestyle changes and talk therapy.

“Anxiety and stress while interwoven can be easily treated,” Synderman said. “People sometimes reach for the medicine before they reach for the change in lifestyle. A lot of times it really takes stepping back for a day and saying what’s a real stressor? Do I have a place to sleep tonight? Do I have food on the table? Do I have a job? If you can answer those three things then many of the stressors frankly are not as big of a deal.”

It’s not just about getting perspective, Snyderman said. It’s also about lifestyle changes that minimize the daily stressors.

“Not only are we too plugged in, but also we don’t unplug enough,” she explained. “I would say to anybody: one hour before you go to bed at night, the TV goes off, the blackberry gets put away, you’re off the computer an that’s when you start reading. That’s when you tuck yourself in. Stressors and anxiety many times can be undone and taken out of one’s life.”   


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