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The age of anxiety

Is medication the answer for life in a troubled world?

the age of anxietyAt times we all feel nervous or worried. Those emotions can be helpful when they motivate us to prepare for a job interview or remind us to check up on an aging parent – only as long as the mild sense of unease we experience passes naturally.

But some people become gripped by paralyzing fear, sleepless nights and a racing heart – all symptoms of a condition that afflicts 12 per cent of Canadians: anxiety.

Anxiety’s huge swath

The Public Health Agency of Canada describes the range of symptoms that signify anxiety disorder as “intense and prolonged feelings of fear and distress that occur out of proportion to the actual threat or danger,” and “feelings of fear and distress that interfere with normal daily functioning.” According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), there is a range of anxiety disorders, which include post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, phobias, social anxiety and even generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD.

Anxiety doesn’t discriminate

When anxiety persists for at least six months, with symptoms such as fatigue, poor concentration, chest pain, confusion and even terror, it may be time to get help.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, there is a range of anxiety disorders, which include post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, phobias, social anxiety and even generalized anxiety disorder

Anxiety disorders don’t discriminate. Prominent sufferers include Charles Darwin, David Beckham and Canadian Olympian Clara Hughes. (Hughes recently completed Clara’s Big Ride, a 12,000-km bicycle trip in support of reducing stigmas associated with mental illness, including anxiety.) Our kids are not immune either: child psychiatrists say they have seen an escalation in the anxiety levels of today’s youth.

The medicalization of emotion

Has it always been like this or are we medicalizing human emotion?

As far back as 1936, films like Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times expressed concern with the dislocating changes caused by modernization. In 2014, times seem rife with disease, unemployment, natural disaster, isolation – and the list goes on.

A 2012 CBC TV documentary, The Age of Anxiety, asked whether anxiety is a psychiatric condition or a valid response to living in a fraught world. It found that by age 32, as much as half the population may have received a prescription for an anxiety-related condition. The antidepressant Effexor was the seventh- most dispensed drug in Canada in 2010, according to IMS Brogan, a tracking firm.

“The medical definition of . . . an anxiety disorder is expanding to include so many aspects of normal human behaviour that we’re in danger of turning half the population into psychiatric patients,” says Ric Esther Bienstock, producer of the CBC show. “The way things are headed, getting an anti-anxiety prescription will be easier than getting a driver’s licence.”

‘Diagnostic inflation’

Patricia Pearson, author of A Brief History of Anxiety … Yours and Mine, thinks that modern expectations of happiness are unreasonable. So we start to believe that our dissatisfaction is pathological. “We’ve … compartmentalized our entire human personality into billable coding systems,” she says. “This has resulted in diagnostic inflation, and the only ones benefiting are the drug-makers.”

Edward Shorter, a medical historian at the University of Toronto, has some advice. First, if you have a condition that can be cured by purchasing a shiny new object or a brisk run in the park, you’re lucky – you probably don’t have a psychiatric disorder. “Mental health has filled the whole space that was once occupied by religion, morality and by common sense,” he says. “This is a tragic story.”

We do live in a volatile world, but experts say there are ways to cope. To stay mentally strong, don’t just advocate for change, act for it. U.S. psychotherapist Chris Saade, co-director of a North Carolina grief/ wellness counselling firm, tells patients to connect with others. “As human beings, we are made to deal with crises collectively, not individually. I tell them to become agents of transformation and change.”

When to medicate

To medicate or not to medicate? That’s a choice each individual must make, in consultation with a medical professional.

“We’re very deliberate in including someone in the film who was really saved by medication to make the point that it’s not all bad,” says Bienstock. “you can’t paint it all with one paintbrush, but because anxiety is a natural feeling, it’s rife with the potential to be over-diagnosed.”

No question, medication can help some people get through a tough time. For others,
it might be the only solution after lifestyle changes, such as eating better, exercising and meditating, simply don’t cut it. Have strength and vision. Do breathing exercises throughout the day. But don’t hesitate to see a doctor if your symptoms persist.◊