Is anxiety the price we pay for the freedom technology and mass media have given us?

She’s been troubled since age 15 by her doubting obsessions and checking compulsions. Married now, she feels the need to take every conceivable precaution to prevent harm in her house. She feels compelled to check, recheck and check again the kitchen stove, the lights, the iron, her curling iron, to make sure she doesn’t cause a fire. When she’s leaving the house, she starts with the door lock – she must check it twice, then check it again. She may get halfway to work and return to check once more, to be sure she didn’t leave the door open.

“She” in that paragraph is a fictional woman whose symptoms have been outlined by a mental health expert to illustrate obsessive-compulsive disorder, one of the many versions of anxiety. Most people experience feelings of anxiety now and then but it becomes a classifiable disorder when it interferes with the normal course of life, overwhelming everything else, becoming a chronic burden.

For many, the feeling of anxiety seems to come from out of nowhere, like a kind of psychological haunting. It floats freely through a human personality, taking the form of panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder or some other symptom. It feels like fear, but fear is usually attached to a specific dread. Anxiety has been defined as feeling fearful without being able to name the source of fear.

Lately it has become a notably more common complaint and its spread naturally raises the idea that something in contemporary society encourages it. Last year a survey of 100,000 students by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health in the U.S. found that more than half of students seeking help at campus clinics report anxiety as an issue. Depression was once the most common mental health problem on campuses but it’s been replaced by anxiety.

For many, the feeling of anxiety seems to come from out of nowhere, like a kind of psychological haunting

In Canada, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) says anxiety disorders are now the most common mental health problem in women, and are second only to substance abuse in men. The Anxiety Disorders Association of Canada (ADAC) says “Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health concern in Canada.” A couple of years ago a CBC television documentary reported that “Anxiety is being called the disease of the 21st century.”

That was claimed for an earlier time by W.H. Auden with his long poem, titled The Age of Anxiety. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948 and inspired a symphony by Leonard Bernstein and a ballet by Jerome Robbins. The phrase wasn’t new (it was in print as early as 1823) but Auden put it into literary language for the rest of the 20th century. Unfortunately, he didn’t explain why he used it. The poem is organized as a four-way conversation about the difficulty of maintaining a secure sense of identity when society’s demands and forms change with such speed.

David Foster Wallace suggested that advertising, when it encourages us to lust after products, consciously aims at increasing anxiety. His novel, Infinite Jest, contains this sentence: “It did what all ads are supposed to do: create an anxiety relievable by purchase.”

No one needs to add to the sins of Mad Men, but it’s possible that another aspect of mass media has something to do with the spreading of anxiety. A few decades ago, in the industrialized world, news was a limited part of consciousness. But the summer of 1980 brought a fundamental change. CNN, the first all-news channel, appeared, offering the latest information 24 hours a day. The idea spread, and much of the world began consuming vast quantities of news. Not long after, news began appearing on the Internet.

Bad news dominated, of course. This meant that much of humanity learned, minute by minute, about atrocities perpetrated across the world. Like a ritual, it came to us in the same order. First a bulletin appeared, then more detailed accounts with an estimate of the fatalities involved, then the first word about the perpetrators, then the news that the death count was rising. Soon the tears of the families of victims were being shed on millions of TV sets and computers.

In the history of conflict, it was a new phenomenon. Uncountable masses, while having no direct connection with the events, found themselves affected by the most hideous crimes, again and again.

There’s no proof that this first-in-history wave of information affects all those people who are reporting anxiety symptoms to therapists. Still, it seems a good possibility that this much unease, absorbed day after day for years, becomes installed within us as part our emotional system.

“Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom,” Søren Kierkegaard wrote. Technology has given humanity a new kind of freedom, an almost instant connection with the most terrible crimes on earth. Perhaps anxiety is the price we pay.