Young adults living in age of anxiety

December 26, 2000

Today's young adults are living in the age of anxiety, according to a new psychological study published in the "Journal of Personality and Social Psychology."

Crime, AIDS, divorce, unemployment, living alone, lack of trust, and other changes in the social environment have produced anxiety levels in children who lived in the 1980s to rival those of child psychiatric patients of the 1950s, reports Case Western Reserve University psychologist Jean Twenge. Her study, "The Age of Anxiety? Birth Cohort Change in Anxiety and Neuroticism, 1952-1993," appears in the journal's December issue.

Twenge's research is based on two major analyses of 170 studies involving 40,192 college students in the United States and 99 samples of 12,056 U.S. children undertaken between 1952-93 that tracked trait anxiety. Trait anxiety refers to being generally anxious, rather than having a temporary emotional reaction to a situation (state anxiety).

The increase of social problems and isolation, coupled with media reports of breaking news events, can produce real or anticipated threats of physical and mental harm that contribute to this increase in anxiety, notes Twenge, a post-doctoral fellow in CWRU's Department of Psychology.

Anxiety, which many times precedes depression, also signals that society will have to grapple with other health and societal problems, such as substance and alcohol abuse which tend to follow depression and anxiety, stresses Twenge.

She adds, "Research has found that anxious people have a higher mortality rate, most likely because anxiety has been linked to higher occurrences of asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcers, inflammatory bowel disease, and coronary heart disease."

The social psychologist -- interested in how the human personality forms -- says that past studies have looked at genetics and family and individual influences, but they only accounted for approximately 50 percent of the influence on personality. She sought answers as to what other factors might shape it.

Knowing from other studies that personality traits in childhood carry through into adulthood, she suspected that the social and cultural environment during childhood -- a critical time for personality formation -- played a role in making people anxious. "Each generation effectively grows up in a different society," reports Twenge.

These societies vary in their attitudes, environmental threats, family structures, and sexual norms, she adds. In her analyses, she proposes that if physical and psychological threats increased, anxiety also would increase. She looked at factors from the overall environment, the economic environment, and overall levels of social during the participant's college and childhood years from 1952-93.

She used data from the Statistical Abstract of the United States (which reports statistics on crime, divorces, and social issues), as well as the Monitoring the Future survey of high school students, to arrive at her conclusions about anxiety levels.

What cure exists for an anxiety epidemic? Twenge proposes that anxiety will wane only when physical and psychological threats diminish and people begin to feel they belong in social groups or communities.

"Until people feel both safe and connected to others, anxiety is likely to remain high," she concludes.

Case Western Reserve University

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