Understanding The Anxiety Epidemic

We live in perhaps the most anxious, fearful, worried culture in the history of the world. To see the reality of this claim, one only needs to look at the data on worry, anxiety, and depression in our culture. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 40 million adults suffer from anxiety disorders, making them the most common mental illness in the United States. To put it another way, nearly one in five adults has an anxiety disorder. These anxiety disorders cost the U.S. over $42 billion annually in medical bills. The list of anxiety disorders is extensive, including:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder – people with this disorder experience excessive anxiety for months at a time, with symptoms that include restlessness, fatigue, irritability, insomnia, and an inability to concentrate. Women are twice as likely to be affected as men.
  • Panic disorder and panic attacks – this disorder involves sudden experiences of intense fear, leaving the sufferer to feel out of control, worried about future attacks, afraid of returning to places or experiences where attacks previously occurred. The attacks themselves involve heart palpitations, accelerated heart rate, sweating, shaking, shortness of breath, a feeling of choking, or fear of death.
  • Agoraphobia – people who experience this are prone to experience feelings of anxiety or panic in open spaces, especially crowded open spaces such as a shopping mall or a stadium.
  • Social anxiety disorder – the symptoms of this disorder are extensive, and they include feeling anxious about being around other people, difficulty talking with others in social settings, extreme feelings of self-consciousness, fear of being humiliated, embarrassed, or rejected, anxiety leading up to social events, avoiding other people altogether, and blushing, sweating, or trembling around others
  • Selective mutism – this disorder makes it difficult, even impossible, for the one with the disorder to speak in certain situations
  • Other types of phobias

Other disorders are related to anxiety disorders, including obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Depression falls within these disorders as well.

In addition to the 40 million Americans with anxiety disorders are the millions of others who have never been to the doctor for anxiety but suffer with it all the same as well as everyone who suffers from intermittent worry, fear, anxiety, and depression. Stepping back to evaluate these statistics can only lead to one conclusion: Americans are riddled with anxiety and worry, with fear and depression. So what can be done about it?

The world has several solutions it offers to treat anxiety and depression.

One treatment method is psychotherapy, which uses a technique called exposure response prevention. The aim of this technique is to help the patient develop a more constructive response to fear: “The goal is for the person with exposure to experience less anxiety over time and give him the tools for coping with symptoms.” In other words, this technique offers no real solution. The best it can offer is to help the patient cope with the symptoms. It never attempts to get to the root of anxiety, worry, and fear; it simply wants to mask the effects, to make life more manageable for those who are anxious.

Another treatment method for anxiety is medication. Medication is not given to eliminate anxiety but, as the National Alliance on Mental Illness writes, “Medication is helpful in managing an anxiety disorder.” They go on to note that medication works “solely to reduce the emotional symptoms of anxiety.” Like psychotherapy, medication never eliminate the problem. It never touches the root. It once again only masks the symptoms. It hides the problem rather than treating it. Because of this, the patient has little hope of ever getting off the medication. Since the problem is never resolved, the medication is required indefinitely. Anxiety never goes away, but instead the medicine makes it possible for someone to grind through the day without having a meltdown.

A third treatment method is called self-management strategy. Ironically, this technique encourages the patient to worry and indulge in anxiety, but to do so only at set periods of time. The hope is that if the patient concentrates all of his worry to one specific time of day, perhaps that will free him up mentally to be less anxious the rest of the day. Once again, no solution to anxiety is offered, but what is offered is not to eliminate worry but to indulge it, to wallow in it, but to set limits as to when one does so. When we understand that Jesus forbids worrying and anxiety of this kind, we see how ludicrous this method is. It would be like advising a porn addict to set aside a certain amount of time each day to indulge his lusts with the hope that he will avoid porn the rest of the day. Setting aside time each day to indulge the desires of the flesh is no way to battle sin! To the contrary, it is a recipe for spiritual, moral, physical, and relational disaster.

These are the kinds of solutions the world has to offer those who suffer from anxiety, worry, fear, and depression. And none of these solutions solve anything. They are merely coping mechanisms at best, hiding the symptoms to make the patient unaware of the problem but never eliminating it or dealing with it. Summarizing our culture’s approach to worry, John MacArthur wrote, “No worry goes unnamed, undefined, uncatalogued, undiagnosed, or unmedicated; worries only go unrelieved.” 1

The good news revealed in the Word of God is that God offers a way not only to eliminate the symptoms of worry but worry itself. To understand God’s method of overcoming anxiety, we first need to understand where anxiety originates. Next week we’ll look at what anxiety is according to the Word of God and what causes it so that we can begin to see God’s method of attacking anxiety and winning.

Notes:

  1. John MacArthur, Luke 11-17 (Chicago: Moody Press, 2013), 138.
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