The term “neurasthenia” was first coined in the 19th century. It describes a state of nervousness and stress caused by a world that seems to move too quickly. The condition was later also referred to as “Americanitis,” which seems appropriate.
In 1903, with the United States on the brink of massive social change, a turn-of-the century neurologist said neurasthenia came from “steam power, the periodical press, the telegraph, the sciences, and the mental activity of women.”
Here we are, a century later, reacting to the reality of modern life with a similar fight or flight response — some of it no doubt related to the “mental activity of women,” or, at least, to one woman in particular!
Journalist Laura Turner, in a recent article, examined this phenomenon. In this podcast, she talks to WhoWhatWhy’s Jeff Schechtman about declines in productivity matched by increases in both depression and anti-anxiety medication consumption, as well as the uncertainty we face as each new day dawns. In short, we live in a time of mass anxiety — and must come to terms with it, or let it (and its uncertain consequences) continue to grow.
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Full Text Transcript:
Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman.
Red or blue or green; whichever side you take in this election, if you’re not anxious or nervous, it’s probably only because you haven’t been paying attention. National elections in particular, always make people anxious. After all, it’s a gut check. A chance to affirm or reaffirm your deepest held ideas and values and test them against your friends, neighbors and your country. But in this election, something far deeper has happened. In 8 years, we’ve gone from talk of hope and change to fear and existential dread as the overriding feeling about the election and about America.
My guest, Laura Turner has written a great story about this. She’s a writer and editor based in San Francisco and it is my pleasure to welcome Laura Turner to Radio WhoWhatWhy. Laura, thanks so much for joining us.
Laura Turner: Of course, thanks for having me.
Jeff Schechtman: As we look at the anxiety that is sort of free floating out there and all the people you’ve talked to in the course of reporting this story, is the story, in your view about this election or the election merely as a reflection of a whole lot of other profound changes taking place that this election somehow becomes the code for?
Laura Turner: That’s a great question and I think it has to be both. I mean, there are a number of sort of free floating issues that have risen to the surface as a result of the rhetoric of this election. But again, the election has really been the thing that has brought them to the surface and I think a lot of folks have felt permission to express thoughts and feelings that perhaps they wouldn’t have expressed without Donald Trump running for office. So there have been people who have said things that are more racially motivated than they would have felt comfortable expressing in public because they see him doing that same thing. So it’s very much tied together but as the article talks about, there’s a history of this sort of national anxiety taking over the uncertainty in America.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the things that you point out is the degree to which a similar kind of anxiety was pervasive back shortly after the turn of the last century. People felt powerless as a whole wave of changes, including industrialization and steam power and the expansion of the printing press – that all of that produced a similar kind of result.
Laura Turner: Yeah, absolutely. There’s this great book that I cite called American Nervousness: 1903 by Tom Lutz and he makes the case that there was this pervasive sense of dread around that time which was the condition that psychologists called neurasthenia, this sort of free floating anxiety about the future that’s attached itself to a particular issue. There were a number of cases of this particular affliction that Lutz cites in his book and it’s interesting because it was dealt with very differently if you were a man or if you were a woman. So if you were a man, you were told what you needed to do; if you need to go for a hike, you need to be outside and sort of restore your nervous energy and as a woman, you were put to bed and occasionally actually, spoon fed a diet of milk by a nurse to kind of remind you of your total dependency on other people. Now, when we see responses breaking down along gender lines, women who have gone through sexual assault have really had to kind of relive their experiences in ways they didn’t choose to because of the tenor of the election. Men at times, are more free to be sort of ignant from this conversation, so it’s really interesting to see a parallel.
Jeff Schechtman: It’s interesting to look at the parallels and realize that given that the anxiety that existed at that point, back at the turn of the last century, how much more intense it is this time, fed by things like 24-hour news and social media and all the instant communications that come at us today.
Laura Turner: Yeah, absolutely. We can’t discount the strong, intensifying effect that having the news constantly on our fingertips has on us. It can feel helpful on the one hand to know that we are always one click away from learning what’s going on, but on the other hand, we are always one click away from growing more and more anxious because there’s nothing stopping us from learning what’s happening. There’s no waiting for the morning newspaper now, it’s all there in our home. So that does really kind of distill the anxiety into a very pure and pervasive form in a way that it simply couldn’t have a hundred years ago.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the other things you point out is the way in which we react emotionally to our perception of what’s going on, regardless of what the underlying facts might be.
Laura Turner: Yeah and it comes back to this whole idea that perception is reality, so you see people who are constantly checking the polls and refreshing the server [?], to find out what is going to happen. It seems that we really should be able to recognize that the facts are uncertain right now but are leaning in a particular direction. Hillary’s had sort of a, not an insignificant lead in the number of polls but our feeling of fear can get so great that that dictates our reaction to reality. We think the worst possible outcome may happen and we want to be prepared for it and in some senses, this is almost like an evolutionary helpful trait. We want to assume the worst and prepare for that so that we can survive in any given situation but that does have the effect of creating a ton of anxiety in us and one of the best antidotes to anxiety is to look at – okay what are the facts, what am I actually dealing with?
Jeff Schechtman: Is there reason to believe, and I want to come back to something you said earlier, is there reason to believe because so much of this has been said, so much has been talked about in this national dialogue that we’ve been undergoing for the past year, year and a half that at the end of the process, perhaps it has a cathartic effect. Is there any historical reason to think that might be the case?
Laura Turner: You know, that’s a really good question and I’m not sure about that just because so much of what I wrote about in the past wasn’t necessarily related to one particular election; this election, quite unique in that sense but was more of a culturally, sort of in the air kind of feeling that did go away with time. If I were to opine on this, I would say that there is something cathartic just nationally about exercising our fears and sort of saying what I’m afraid of and then coming to realize that it didn’t come to pass, or it did and that’s scary but also cathartic in its own way. So I think there is an emotional buildup and that emotional buildup has to go somewhere at a certain point, it can’t just lurk forever. But I think we’ll know a lot more about that in a couple of days. It’ll be interesting to see, from the election what the general, sort of sense of anxiety is at that point.
Jeff Schechtman: I guess what really needs to happen is somebody needs to take a polling survey of pharmacies and find out if there’s been an increase in the amount of anti-anxiety medication prescribed.
Laura Turner: Totally. A couple of other people that I spoke with have actually gone on medications like Ativan to deal with their increased anxiety. So anecdotally, I can tell you that there are some people who are turning to that at this point in time.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the things that drives that, you quote somebody in your piece as saying that one of the anxiety producing aspects is waking up in the morning and not knowing what comes next, not knowing what they’re going to hear or read that day. Talk a little bit about what you heard in your reporting of that.
Laura Turner: Yeah, there were a number of folks who said they would wake up in the morning all worried about what was coming that day. I think this is particularly intensified as both campaigns have been trying to dig and reveal more about each other and kind of smear each other, where you don’t know what’s going to be unsurfaced. Again, like I mentioned, some of the women that I spoke with were survivors of sexual assault and they would feel particularly anxious at the idea that they would wake up and hear on the news everywhere around them, another story about a woman who had been assaulted, groped, what have you. That makes them have to sort of relive what they went through, and that can be particularly traumatizing. Some of the women who I spoke with who were people of color talking about feeling unwelcomed in this country, feeling afraid someone would say some derogatory things to them in public. One of the persons that I cited was from the Southern Poverty Law Center that did a study on school and what kids are saying to other kids to sort of parrot what they had heard their parents saying at home and would do this kind of xenophobic, racist rhetoric at school. These are young kids we are talking about who are afraid to get up in the morning and go back to their classroom and face kids who told them to go back to Mexico or that they weren’t welcome here because they’re Muslim. So there’s a very real sense of uncertainty, just about what’s happening that day is very difficult.
Jeff Schechtman: And this really gets to the heart of one of the things you talk about; this nexus between people’s personal fears and the way in which all of this has become part of the national dialogue and the kind of feedback loop that it creates.
Laura Turner: Yeah, absolutely. Part of my interest is I’m someone who’s dealt which anxiety my whole life and I noticed my personal anxiety racheting up the last few months and I stopped to wonder, what is that about because things are generally okay in my life. So, starting to realize that I was feeling personally anxious about this election was kind of the germ for this article. But there is a feedback loop where we can feel very anxious at people and then we turn on the news and read something about the election that makes us feel more anxious and then that increases our anxiety and we want to know more, so we watch more, or read more or tweet more and then that makes us feel more anxious, so it is a feedback loop that encourages anxiety and in part, it can be wanting to be engaged, wanting to read, wanting to be informed, which a lot of these people I spoke with are, so they value the purpose of learning a lot about, you know what is the election, what are the key positions, what are the policies that I’m voting for but it’s hard to simply read about that without also reading about the very, very heightened racism, misogyny, just the kind of ugly tenor of this campaign. That feedback loop perpetuates itself.
Jeff Schechtman: How does that play out against people’s concern for personal safety?
Laura Turner: That is a good question. I didn’t end up getting to tell this story in the article just because I interviewed so many people, but there was a woman I spoke with who talked about being on a bus; she’s African American and there’s a man on the bus with her who started kind of moving over her, getting very close into her personal space and then told her that she should go home even though she was from America and that she wasn’t welcome here. That is one example of the kind of sense of invasion of space and invasion of autonomy really that can affect people’s own fears for their safety and make them feel like they’re not safe when they go out. So I think in some ways, this election has had the effect of reinforcing people’s personal boundaries and bubbles and telling them they should stay with the people they know, that they should be safe and not necessarily try to risk getting to know new people or entering into different spaces because if they do something even as simple as riding the bus to work, they may not be able to do that undisturbed, and that’s a disturbing thing.
Jeff Schechtman: When you look at the historical examples, particularly the kind of nervousness that we were talking about earlier, that happened at the turn of the last century, how long did those cycles last? What did we learn about that?
Laura Turner: You know, they were generally I would say, a couple of years in length. The book that I cited talks just about 1903, but on either side of that, there were very important factors that contributed to this sense of anxiety and I would say when there is a lot of uncertainty about the future in our country, we tend to grow anxious. Right now, we are in a time where the uncertainty looms large ahead of us and there are high stakes. So there’s a period of a couple of years and I think that even with the election, this isn’t something that’s going to just end or go away. The people who are deeply partisan on both sides, one half of them are going to be so very disappointed and angry and the other half will be happy but feel free not to listen to their counterparts. So I think there will be a very real sense for a while of a divided country and with the way that Trump’s candidacy has changed the GOP, I think there’s a lot of fear of the future even if he does not win the election. So there are a number of different ways that I can see this continuing on into the future for quite some time.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the other things that seems to feed this, and I think that it’s a natural aspect of reporting on the election, is the degree to which the analysis and the polls, which are so much a part of the coverage today, breaks us down into such very specific divergent groups and that the more coverage there is on those specific groups and the differences and how they’re reacting, the more that emphasizes that sense of national divide.
Laura Turner: Absolutely. It’s almost like people retreating to their corners and you get in a little bit of an echo chamber. You see in some things like social media when people post their opinions and share things on Facebook that they hope will convince people to think differently and how really fruitless that tends to be. I have never met anyone who has said: this is has really changed my mind on this issue because someone posted a very thoughtful Facebook update about it. That just doesn’t tend to happen. But we think that we can convince and change the people around us by sharing our opinions because that’s what we can control, that’s what we can share and we kind of hope that the people we love and know will agree with us and when they don’t, the tendency isn’t to engage in respectful dialogue, the tendency is to retreat to our corners and say, well you believe this, so I don’t want to talk to you or I think badly of you. That really breaks down conversation.
Jeff Schechtman: I guess we’ll reach the maximum level of fright or flight on Tuesday morning.
Laura Turner: Absolutely. It’ll be interesting to see.
Jeff Schechtman: Laura Turner. Her recent article is “When National Turmoil Becomes Personal Anxiety”. Thank you so much for spending time with us today here on Radio WhoWhatWhy
Laura Turner: Thanks for having, it was good to talk with you.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman.
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