This is the dawning of the Age of Anxiety

WHAT, NOT WORRY?

November 23, 1990|By Linda Shrieves | Linda Shrieves,Orlando Sentinel

If you're a worrywart, these could be the busiest days of your life.

Hundreds of thousands of soldiers are camped out in the Saudi Arabian desert, poised for war. The economy's flat. Gas prices are up; housing sales are down. Unemployment is rising; the stock market is in a slump.

Poachers are killing elephants for their ivory. The Everglades may be dying. Even grocery shopping offers a choice to worry about: paper or plastic?

"The level of anxiety in the nation is rapidly rising," said Alan Caruba, executive director of the National Anxiety Center, a New Jersey outfit that monitors the causes of worry.

Mr. Caruba started the center in January after parents started worrying that their children's apples and apple juice were tainted with Alar, a cancer-causing pesticide.

Mr. Caruba, a former journalist and now a one-man think tank, thought the Alar scare had been blown out of proportion. A sometime humorist, he thought the nation could use a lighthearted approach to its troubles.

"However, the minute I introduced the center, I got tons of mail. It all said, 'I'm very worried. I worry all the time.' "

Mr. Caruba began to worry, too. It appears, he said, that the nation is entering "a new Age of Anxiety."

Suddenly, a nation that was fun-loving and free-spending during the Reagan '80s has become a great groveling mass of worrywarts. The excesses of the '80s -- the growing national debt, the carefree loan policies of savings and loans, the get-rich-quick mood on Wall Street -- may be coming back to haunt us.

And that, said Mr. Caruba, is only part of the worrywart's problem. Every time he picks up the newspaper or turns on the TV, a worrywart is confronted with bad news.

"We are constantly being told that we are under threat of death and destruction no matter what we do," Mr. Caruba said. "This creates an ongoing state of anxiety in people's lives. For instance, we just found out a month ago that it's perfectly all right to eat butter," he said, referring to a Netherlands study questioning the health benefits of margarine.

"For years, we were told, 'Eat butter; die.' 'Drink coffee; die.' Now we find out that maybe we shouldn't have ever eaten margarine for all those years."

What's ironic about our obsession with health, Mr. Caruba said, is that the average life expectancy for Americans is 75 years. "We are living longer, healthier lives than any previous generation of Americans, but you wouldn't know that if you read today's newspaper, open up a magazine or turn on your TV.

"Instead, the message we get is 'Run for your life,' " Mr. Caruba said, laughing. "The other message is 'If you stay home long enough, radon will get you.' "

America's preponderance of worry is worrisome enough to provoke questions like:

Why do some people worry about everything while others worrabout nothing?

For some worriers, the problem is self-concept. If people define themselves very narrowly, then everything outside their little world is threatening. The future may seem particularly threatening. But if they see themselves as capable and multifaceted, then the outside world is not so threatening. The reason is that they believe they can control their future.

Take a person who views himself as an athlete, but little more. Not a scholar or a musician. Just an athlete.

"If that's the only thing he has going for him, then when he places himself in different environments, he's going to feel threatened," said Bob Ziller, a psychologist at the University of Florida.

Hence all the worrying.

But not everyone who worries has that problem. Some worrywarts, Dr. Ziller said, worry about everything as a protective device. "It's a smoke screen," he said. "If you worry about everything, then people won't know what really, really bothers you."

What's really hard to believe is that many worrywarts like to worry. It's the way they cope with the world. While non-worriers dismiss problems by attributing them to bad luck or the way of the world, a worrier copes with problems by worrying about them.

"They're good at worrying," Dr. Ziller said. "So they worry about everything. It becomes part of who they are."

Still, worrying carries with it negative connotations, particularly in social situations. "At the interpersonal level, it could be a drag," Dr.Ziller said. "Other people may not care to share and mull over every problem with a worrywart.

"And, unlike stress or anxiety, which are socially acceptable, worrying suggests something negative. Much like we stay away from shy people, we stay away from worriers."

And, the body pays a price for worrying.

Ulcers, high blood pressure and anxiety attacks can result. Some worrywarts find themselves fatigued and lethargic, unable to muster enough energy for the simplest of tasks.

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