08/13/2010 05:01 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

How We All Became So Anxious

When we travel abroad, we may notice how Latino families meet with their friends and relatives on the plaza each evening. And we downright envy the cafe culture of Europeans, who linger over their coffee and meals.

Other cultures still remember what Americans have forgotten--that Homo sapiens are a herd animal, "social to the core," as primatologist Frans de Waal puts it. We may not be aware that the price we pay for our growing isolation is increased anxiety.

Remember in the 1990s, when "cocooning" was a frequent story in the media, and yet we never hear about it anymore? Cocooning didn't go away, it simply became the norm. Here are three ways we became more isolated, and more anxious:

1) Americans lead a much more transient lifestyle today. Generally speaking, we move often, and we no longer have grandma watch the kids, or host neighborhood barbecues, or stroll to the local watering hole for our daily chat with friends or relatives, like we used to. In Europe and developing nations, where three generations of a family often live in close proximity, divorce and addictions are lower, and in some ways the people just seem happier.

These nations may envy our wealth, but they don't envy our social lives.

2) After parents realized how neglect could scar a child for life, we went to the other extreme. Whereas yesteryear's parents expected children to entertain themselves with friends, today's parents break our backs to provide the perfect, trauma-free childhood for our kids, so they can hopefully grow up to be happier adults. This leaves parents more exhausted and anxious than ever, as they sacrifice their own friendships, personal fulfillment, careers and sometimes even their marriages in order to give their kids more attention.

Yet, for all our efforts, today's kids seem even more troubled and demanding, which creates even more anxious, hovering parents.

3) At the same time today's parenting style demands much more time and attention, most households became dual-career. The scheduling demands alone were daunting, but add to that the terror parents often feel that they may be messing up their children by leaving them with babysitters. Thus, parents want the precious little time they have with their children to be fabulous, so they hesitate to set healthy boundaries. Anxious chaos may be the result, which is lose-lose for both child and parent. Obviously, we don't want to force some parents to stay home, so we have to find a creative solution for the American workplace.

Physicians, teachers, clergy and school counselors often tell me they feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of stress they witness in parents and children. So how did anxiety hit critical mass and then explode?

I remember watching "Animal Planet" on TV one day, as a troop of chimpanzees lounged by a watering hole. The troop was at peace until one chimp was startled by some unseen danger, and his twitch seemed to set off a chain reaction of hooting terror. The others never paused to question his judgment. Instead, instinct kicked in and dozens of individuals reacted as one frightened herd.

Likewise for humans. When somebody near us twitches, we jump--and we can't help doing so. We have forgotten that anxiety evolved in us as a survival instinct. Anxiety helps animals to anticipate possible danger and trigger our fight-or-flight response. In an era when our ancestors faced life-and-death decisions on a daily basis, anxiety and herd instincts helped ensure our survival.

Humans don't realize that anxiety is highly contagious, and spreads through us the same way it spread through those startled chimps. The bestselling author of Social Intelligence, Daniel Goleman, describes how the mirror neurons in our brains allow us to reflect and mimic the feelings of the person we're with. This gives us the capacity for empathy, but it also allows anxiety to ripple through a human herd just as quickly as among chimpanzees.

So it's hardly surprising that living in today's Age of Anxiety has left us in chronic fight-or-flight mode, and our reactions to threats, both real and perceived, are not always guided by our thoughtful intellect. Anxiety has overrun our thin veneer of civilized politesse, and we've gone primal, overreacting to the smallest slight as if we were under attack: Parents come to blows on the playing field, couples fight or flee from their marriages and since kids pick up on everything, they act out.

Our anxiety has hit critical mass because we are caught in a vicious cycle:

1) Our increased anxiety heightens our irritability and triggers our fight-or-flight response much more often than we realize;

2) Almost none of us are aware that our flight-response is the real silent killer of relationships. Our increasing tendency to walk away from tension in relationships is actually our flight-response gone awry, and it causes the slow, hidden erosion of family and community.

3) As we flee more relationships, our growing isolation further heightens our anxiety, which fuels our irritability and triggers this vicious cycle of fight-or-flight all over again.

Americans now have dangerously few communities left in our lives, and we must stop living in denial. We must address our anxiety with the same urgency we bring to climate change. If lions, elephants or chimpanzees abandoned the community structure of their herds, we would expect a rapid extinction of the species. To imagine that the human animal is different is like denying global warming.

The simple act of remembering we're animals can bring humility, simplicity, and tremendous relief, because we no longer delude ourselves that we're "Oh so rational." Once we can begin to spot our flight-behaviors, we can step out of the vicious cycle of isolation and anxiety. We can start re-building our communities, one relationship at a time.

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