Studies Show Increasing Anxiety in Children and Adults Over Time
Tense muscles, a sense of impending danger, worry, and insomnia—everyone experiences anxiety now and then, especially during stressful situations. But several studies suggest that anxiety may be much more common and chronic among children and adults today than it was in previous decades. Many people are used to feeling anxious and remain unaware of its meaning and implications.
Health Implications of Chronic Anxiety
Anxiety is a state of apprehension, tension, and uneasiness in response to a perceived threat. It is marked by a number of psychological and physical symptoms. Anxiety is considered normal when it is temporary during a stressful or uncertain situation. Prolonged, intense, or inappropriate periods of anxiety, however, may indicate an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety not only causes discomfort for the sufferer, but, when prolonged, may cause a significant decrease in quality of life and disrupt daily functioning, productivity, and relationships. According to the American Psychological Association, prolonged anxiety may also increase the risk of developing one or more of the following conditions:
- Substance abuse
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Coronary heart disease
It would be expected that, as rates of anxiety increase, so will the number of people with health conditions preceded by anxiety. According to Jean Twenge, PhD, of Case Western Reserve University, this is especially true for depression, which is closely linked to anxiety.
Researchers Explore Changes in Anxiety Rates
Twenge conducted two analyses published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which examined changes in "trait anxiety" (over a 41-year period) among college students and children. "Trait anxiety" refers to relatively stable individual differences in anxiety-proneness, whereas "state anxiety" is a temporary emotion due to a particular situation.
Anxiety Among College Students
The first analysis looked at anxiety scores from 170 studies of American college students (representing 40,192 students) conducted between 1952 to 1993. Anxiety was measured using the Taylor Manifest Anxiety scale (TMAS), the Eysenck Personality Inventory (EPI), the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire (EPQ), and the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI). Results showed significant and steady increases in anxiety among college students over time.
- On the TMAS score measure of anxiety from 1952 to 1967:
- Men’s scores rose from 12.88 to 15.84.
- Women’s scores increased from 14.30 to 18.17.
- On the EPI score measure of anxiety from 1968 to 1993:
- Men’s scores rose from 8.75 to 10.05.
- Women’s scores rose from 9.78 to 11.91.
- On the EPQ score measure of anxiety from 1968 to 1993:
- Men’s scores rose from 9.06 to 12.29
- Women’s scores rose from 11.48 to 14.06.
- On the STAI score measure of anxiety from 1968 to 1993:
- Men’s scores rose from 36.37 to 40.73
- Women’s scores rose from 37.94 to 41.92.
Anxiety Among Children
The second analysis looked at 99 studies of 6,600 boys and 5,456 girls from nine to 17 years of age. The studies took place between 1954 and 1981, with one study taking place in 1988. Anxiety was measured using the Children’s Manifest Anxiety scale (CMAS).
From 1954 to 1981, boy’s CMAS scores increased from 14.94 to 19.91. Girl’s CMAS scores increased from 16.32 to 22.46. In mixed-sex samples, which include more samples after 1970, CMAS scores increased even more from 15.08 to 22.42 from 1954 to 1981.
As with the college students, children showed a significant and steady increase in anxiety over time. The studies also found that typical school children during the 1980s reported more anxiety than child psychiatric patients did during the 1950s.
Low Social Connectedness and High Environmental Threat
Why the increase in anxiety? Both analyses found anxiety levels to be associated with low social connectedness and high environmental threat. During the study period, low social connectedness was linked to higher divorce rates, more people living alone, and a decline in trust in other people.
Environmental threats increased during the study period, including, during various periods, violent crime, worries about nuclear war, and fear of diseases such as AIDS. Increased media coverage was also cited as a source of increased perception of environmental threat.
Since the study ended in 1993, some of the threats, such as crime rates and risk of nuclear war, have declined. However, declining social connectedness continues to be a problem, and new environmental threats such as terrorism, economic woes, and layoffs are on the upswing.
Treatment for Chronic Anxiety
Chronic anxiety has been linked to a number of sources, including biology and family dynamics, as well as alienation and environmental threats. Although many of these sources are beyond our control, specific steps can be taken to help prevent or treat anxiety. They may include:
- Seeing your doctor to rule out or treat any underlying causes of anxiety
- Receiving individual or group psychotherapy
- Taking medications to reduce symptoms of anxiety
- Increasing your social support
- Improving relationships and building trust (for example, attending couples counseling)
- Developing your spiritual faith
- Limiting your exposure to anxiety-inducing media programming
American Psychological Association
American Psychiatric Association
Canadian Mental Health Association
Mental Health Canada
Edlemann RJ. Anxiety Theory, Research and Intervention in Clinical and Health Psychology. New York, NY: Wiley; 1992
Seligman M, Schulman B, DeRubeis R. The prevention of depression and anxiety. Prevention and Treatment. 1999;2:1-22
Twenge J. The age of anxiety? Birth cohort change in anxiety and neuroticism, 1952-1993. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2000;79:1007-1021.
Last reviewed March 2008 by Theodor B. Rais, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
Copyright © 2011 EBSCO Publishing All rights reserved.