The Atlantic

Trickle-Down Distress: How America's Broken Meritocracy Drives Our National Anxiety Epidemic

Anxiety is growing into a peculiarly American phenomenon. How did we become the world's leading exporter of worrywarts?
Source: Susana Vera / Reuters

America is turning into a country of hand-wringers. Nearly one in five of us—40 million American adults—suffer from anxiety disorders, the most common class of psychiatric ailment we have. By comparison, a mere one in ten are plagued with mood disorders like depression, the second most-common class of psychiatric problems. Panic attacks often besiege Daniel Smith, author of the new anxiety memoir Monkey Mind, out July 3, while others suffer from generalized anxiety disorder, persistent and excessive worrying about everyday things; social anxiety disorder; and a host of other fretful conditions.

So we're more anxious than anything else—and also more anxious than anyone else, beating out all other nations in our race to the top of the nerve-racked list. According to a recent World Health Organization study, 31 percent of Americans are likely to suffer from an anxiety problem at some point during their lifetimes— compared to 25.3 percent of those in Colombia, and 24.6 percent in New Zealand, the countries that rank second and third. You'd think people in developing or unstable states—those preoccupied with concerns farther down on the Maslow Scale—would be more anxious than we are. Not so. "According to the 2002 World Mental Health Survey, people in developing-world countries such as Nigeria are up to five times less likely to show clinically significant anxiety levels than Americans, despite having more basic life-necessities to worry about," writes Taylor Clark, author of Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and. "What's more, when these less-anxious developing-world citizens emigrate to the United States, they tend to get just as anxious as Americans.

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