Friday the 13th is just one of many thing that can make people anxious. Understanding those kinds of feelings was the focus of a talk last Friday, hosted by the Women’s Club of Montclair with Dr. Jonathan Caspi, PhD, LCSW.
Members and non-members who came to “The Anxiety Epidemic” at 82 Union St., an installment of the club’s Friday Speaker Series, got to learn more about a common mental health challenge many struggle with alone.
A professor at Montclair State University, Caspi teaches in the Family Studies and Human Development department. In his last five to 10 years of teaching, Caspi has noticed a rise in anxiety among his students. “I spend more time managing anxiety in class than I do sometimes teaching content,” Caspi said.
Caspi defined anxiety for the audience as a “perception of future danger” and presented statistics on the rise in anxiety in recent years.
Based on diagnostic interview data from the National Comorbidity Study Replication, an estimated 31.1% of U.S. adults will experience some form of anxiety disorder during their lifetime, with higher incidence among women.
Caspi made it a point to say that anxiety is not always a negative feeling.
“Anxiety is good because it does motivate us, but it also alerts us to real danger so we can’t dismiss it,” he said. “It helps us with motivation and performance. It makes us human and it helps us to learn about ourselves and listen to ourselves which is really important,” Caspi added.
Anxiety also helps us to be more empathetic with others, said Caspi, adding that people shouldn’t want to eliminate anxiety completely from their lives but understand it better by distinguishing between helpful anxiety versus negative or debilitating anxiety.
Caspi said anxiety research tends to focus on associations or correlations surrounding anxiety, rather than causes, but factors like genetics, environment, finances, infidelity in relationships and traumatic events can all contribute to anxiety.
One audience member inquired about the impact of hormonal changes such as menstrual cycles or menopause. Caspi said there is a link and that we often feel anxiety first in our bodies. “When women go through hormonal shifts, their body starts to feel differently. If they’re already anxious, they might interpret that as ‘Something bad is happening.” This reaction, Caspi said, often exacerbates the anxiety that is already present.
Two major factors contributing to anxiety in recent years are COVID-19 and social media. In a chart shared by Caspi, the National Center for Health Statistics Household Pulse Survey found that in 2019, 7.4% to 8.6% of adults in the study were experiencing anxiety symptoms. At the height of COVID-19, in April 2020 to April 2021, 28.2% to 37.2% of the adults were experiencing symptoms.
“People get fixated on events beyond our control. Almost everything is out of our control in life anyway,” he said.
Prior to the creation of social media networks, Caspi said statistics surrounding anxiety and depression were steady. Wen Facebook became more prevalent, the statistics started to increase. In the study released by Massachusetts Institute of Technology, researchers studied specific dates when Facebook was introduced on 775 college campuses from 2004 to 2006. Researchers found there was a 20% increase in anxiety. In a study conducted by Iowa State, college students who reduced their time on social media by only 30 minutes scored significantly lower for anxiety than students who didn’t.
Caspi touched on a multitude of topics that validated different groups in the room such as concerned parents or soon to be retirees. Caspi told the audience anxiety can manifest by a major life change like retirement.
“Anxiety doesn’t live in isolation, it lives in relationships,” said Caspi, who added that parents can lose focus of how their reactions to their children affect their anxiety.
Caspi challenged the audience to make conscious choices to ensure that anxiety doesn’t consume them.
Making social connections, addressing and changing negative self-talk and determining real from imagined threats are just a few of the actions you can do on a day to day basis when feelings of anxiety arise.