Analyze This: As Good Times Roll, What Are Americans Worried About Now? Fresh Low-Grade Anxieties Seem to Pop Up Anew; Frights to Fill the Void
The Stephen King Paradox

By Jonathan Eig
February 8, 2000
The Wall Street Journal

Not so long ago, the sources of fear in America were as visible as darkly gathered clouds. Now the skies have cleared.

Americans are living longer, making more money, and investing with imperial confidence in the ever-soaring stock market. Corporations still lay off workers from time to time, but, in today's cheery economy, unemployment is often seen as the first step toward a better job.

Crime rates are so low that if there's a mugger in Times Square, it's a likely bet that Disney propped him there to make the street scene more real.

The communist threat? It seems almost as droll now as the Y2K nightmare. Remember that one?

"Never before," said President Clinton in his State of the Union address two weeks ago, "has our nation enjoyed, at once, so much prosperity and social progress with so little internal crisis or so few external threats."

Yet, despite all this good news, a collective calm has not blanketed the nation. Fear has been scattered, not erased, and for some, that makes the world more frightening than ever.

"The nuclear holocaust is a rational fear," says Christopher McCullough, a San Francisco psychotherapist and co-author of "Managing Your Anxiety." But with rational fears in retreat, he says, irrational fears -- often fueled by media and politicians -- have gathered force.

"Anxiety is a condition of the privileged," Dr. McCullough says. "When we're not busy dealing with real threats, we have this luxury of looking inward."

Anxiety has overcome depression to become the nation's most prevalent mental-health problem, and anxiety-fighting drugs have become some of the pharmaceutical industry's hottest commodities.

The industry that equips homes and offices with alarms and such tallied $72 billion in sales and services last year twice the total in 1990 -- even as burglaries and most other crimes steadily fell. Meanwhile, the only things spreading faster than gated communities are razor-wire-topped gated communities, otherwise known as prisons.

People who study fear have never seen a period in which rational sources of it were in such short supply.

In response, politicians, interest groups and the media have served up a smorgasbord of overblown frights to fill the American appetite. In the past few years, the options have included Y2K, anthrax, flesh-eating bacteria, genetically modified foods, road rage, child abduction, carjacking, acid rain, and the ebola virus.

How many people do you know who have suffered from even one of these problems?

Psychiatrists call it symptom substitution. When one fear vanishes, another takes its place. And when the most obvious bogeymen have disappeared, as they seemingly have today, people dig deeper to find substitutes.

Something in human nature, it would seem, insists that people cling to fear even during times of prosperity.

"It is very easy to engage in fear based on stories, and very hard to calm people based on what appear to be dry statistical records," says Steven E. Hyman, director of the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Md.

In other words, the fact that novelist Stephen King was hit by a van last year terrifies people; the fact that the rate of auto accidents involving pedestrians has been steadily dropping does little to calm those fears.

Nothing frightens quite like the unknown, which helps explain why so many Americans canceled their vacation plans and stayed home guarding their bottled-water collections and why so many bosses required their employees to man the battle stations on the eve of Y2K.

More than 2,500 people phoned 1-800-THERAPIST for help in calming their millennial fear, says Kevin Grold, president of, a psychiatric referral service.

"They were saying, `Is the power going out? Will I have food? Should I move away from the coast? Should I move to the coast?'" recalls Dr. Grold. "People really were afraid."

With that scare over, he says, people may be searching for a new worry to fill the void. Terrorism might do the trick, says Dr. Grold, who recently bought 20 Israeli-made gas masks as gag gifts for friends.

Some fears are valid, of course. People who live in low-income neighborhoods remain far more vulnerable to crime than wealthy Americans. People who don't have enough to eat tend not to worry much about the ebola virus.

And even in a roaring economy, fear is a very real thing for many of the men and women recently fired by Coca-Cola Co.

Some fears are useful, too. Fear helps maintain a strong military, it helps keep motorists buckled up, and it helps business leaders avoid unnecessary risk and costly lawsuits. At least in moderation, fear of singing or speaking in public usually helps sharpen performance.

But all that aside, the American landscape of fear as been immutably changed by this era of success and affluence.

Not many people have more first-hand experience with fear than 51-year-old Ellen Isaksen of Tarpon Springs, Fla. It has ruled her life since agoraphobia struck at age 13, rendering her terrified of leaving the house. Over the years, the intensity of her disorder has waxed and waned, to some extent according to conditions in the world outside.

Her own fears aside, she says she thinks that for most people, "when things are OK, that's when you're waiting for the other shoe to drop."

Indeed, that's when many people are most vulnerable to irrational fears. Psychiatrists and sociologists have long speculated that symptoms of irrational anxiety increase when political and economic systems are most stable.

In times of war or economic depression, the struggle to survive overwhelms all else. In times of peace, it's open season.

When Melissa Woycechowsky, a 30-year-old San Diego real-estate agent and recovering hypochondriac, heard President Clinton say that Americans were never more secure, her response was quick: "Dream on," she says. "They used to say that one nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day. Now all you need is one little virus."

Ms. Woycechowsky treats her condition with Prozac, one of many strong-selling prescription drugs that have transformed the treatment of anxiety disorders over the course of the decade.

"Imagine being allergic to people," suggests the new campaign for Paxil, a drug manufactured by SmithKline Beecham PLC. Last year, the federal Food and Drug Administration approved Paxil as the first prescription drug targeting "social phobia."

For people with general anxiety disorder, which is characterized by excessive worry on any number of concerns, Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. offers a drug called BuSpar.

Darlene Jody, senior medical director for neurosciences at Bristol-Myers, says that everyone suffers fear and anxiety. The symptoms don't qualify as an illness unless they are persistent and strong enough to impair function.

Over the course of a year, regardless of the crime rate or the economy, 17% of Americans will suffer from an anxiety disorder, Dr. Jody says. "It seems there's a pretty consistent prevalence," she says. "This global sense of well-being doesn't seem to reduce the prevalence of these disorders."

In a perverse way, the global sense of well-being that Dr. Jody refers to may raise a new set of low-grade fears, fears not strong enough to qualify as mental illness.

"Maybe what replaces fear is a generalized, low level of worry," says Northwestern University sociologist Bernard Beck in Evanston, Ill. "Worry about what you're eating, whether your water is safe, about your health."

Investors don't appear terribly worried about the rise of the stock market, says Dr. Beck, but there may be a great deal of anxiety about missing out on the economic rally.

These are some of the fears that most concern Barry Glassner, professor of sociology at the University of Southern California and author of "The Culture of Fear."

"We live in just about the safest time in human history, and yet we're filled with a lot of overblown fears," Dr. Glassner says. "We waste billions of dollars on fears that are blown way out of proportion."

Fear sells, Dr. Glassner says, whether the product is an antibacterial soap, a television news program, or a new prison compound. Most of the time, the money could be better spent elsewhere.

In the wake of the shootings at Columbine High School, for example, schools all over the country spent heavily for new security systems. In reality, a child is far more likely to be hit by lightning on a playground than shot in a classroom, Dr. Glassner says. Meanwhile, the metal detectors greeting students further spread the fear.

Television and newspaper accounts accomplish the same effect. When crime is down, every isolated murder receives exaggerated treatment, which in turn keeps fear of crime from falling.

More recently, the Internet, with its powerful ability to spread rumors, has become a vital tool for the transmission of fear, says Dr. Glassner. Air travel, for example, is remarkably safe, he says, but fear of flying grows with every crash and every ensuing rumor that terrorist bombs or errant missiles brought down the plane.

Simple psychology compels us to expect the worst, particularly in the best of times, says Wes Craven, director of the films "Scream," "Scream 2" and "Scream 3." "I think America will always be afraid, in a sense, exactly because of its great success," Mr. Craven says.

In the end, death, in one form or another, will never fail to frighten, he says. Here, at last, is a perfectly rational fear. No matter what the social conditions, he says, the thought of a psychotic killer or the boy next door lurking in the dark, waiting to "take your wife, life and Lexus," will always give a chill.

"I'm not worried about running out of either relevant material or a receptive audience," Mr. Craven says.

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