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On modern life, anxiety, and depression.

Posted Oct 22 2008 6:15pm

This blog post got me thinking. It's by a woman whose significant other remains largely hotel-bound when he accompanies her on a Las Vegas business trip:

The first day of the conference, I left for the convention center in the early morning while Jonathan slept. When I got back it was nearly 6 pm and he had only left the hotel room once — he rode the elevator to the lobby where there is a Starbucks, got a bagel and the aforementioned five dollar water and returned to the confines of the room for the balance of the day.

Granted, he was trying to get some work done, but I think his temporary agoraphobia was due more to an overall sense of disgust at the excess, lust, greed and materialism that is Vegas.

It was 17 years ago that I visited Las Vegas for the first time, several years after I had my first panic attack, and before I really understood that what was happening was happening in my head -- back when I was going from cardiologist to gastroenterologist to ENT specialist, in a quest for the "real" medical problem that was causing me so much worry. I was driving across the country with my buddy Dave and his new girlfriend Tracy (today they're married with two kids, one of them -- Fiona -- my adorable goddaughter). The flashing lights; the hordes of gamblers and their ecstatic shouts and dreadful moans; the ding-ding-ding of the slot machines -- it was too much stimulation for me, and I felt completely agoraphobic -- on the verge of a massive panic attack -- the entire time we were there (which was maybe 8 hours).

Again, that was 17 years ago. Before the Mandalay, the Venetian, and the Bellagio. Before Treasure Island, the Luxor, and New York-New York. Before "The Real World - Las Vegas" and 24/7 ESPN coverage of the World Series of Poker, back when Vegas was home to a quarter million rather that the half-million-plus people who live there today. I haven't been back since that first visit; I can only imagine how much more anxiety-provoking the place is today. As Barry Manilow says, "There's just no quiet in Las Vegas."

Which brings me to the topic I really want to get to: the cause of panic, anxiety, and depression. Look around the web; read the books. When it comes to discussing panic, anxiety, and depression, most of what you read focuses on the genetic and psychological traits that are prevalent among the afflicted, or on strategies for easing your anguish. There's very little mention of the elephant in the room, the thing that everybody sees but few decide to point out. And that is: What if it's all getting to be too much? What if we're not built to cope with that amount of stimulation?

It's not just Las Vegas, after all. It's no secret that with each passing decade things are getting faster in all our lives, that we're being asked to process more and more information as we move through our days. Indeed, according to this, "Consumers today encounter from 3,500 to 5,000 marketing messages per day, vs. 500 to 2,000 in the 1970s." And according to a recent book called Everything Bad Is Good for You, reviewed here, even watching TV has become a more complex task over time. From the review:
A typical episode of “Starsky and Hutch,” in the nineteen-seventies, followed an essentially linear path: two characters, engaged in a single story line, moving toward a decisive conclusion. To watch an episode of “Dallas” today is to be stunned by its glacial pace—by the arduous attempts to establish social relationships, by the excruciating simplicity of the plotline, by how obvious it was. A single episode of “The Sopranos,” by contrast, might follow five narrative threads, involving a dozen characters who weave in and out of the plot. Modern television also requires the viewer to do a lot of what Johnson calls “filling in,” as in a “Seinfeld” episode that subtly parodies the Kennedy assassination conspiracists, or a typical “Simpsons” episode, which may contain numerous allusions to politics or cinema or pop culture.

Once, I said to my shrink, "I feel like I just wasn't made for this world." More and more of us seem to be thinking the same thing. Depression and anxiety rates are exploding. Could it be that our world is getting too fast?
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