Modern psychological research is suggesting that the causes of anxiety may not lie within the individual in terms of faulty biology or faulty thinking patterns but come from factors within the wider society.
The most recent Psychiatric Morbidity Survey indicates that there are some 3 million people in the UK with an anxiety disorder. What methods are used to give us information about anxiety? Different methods produce different evidence. Traditionally, anxiety was studied as something within the person using scientific experiments but these days surveys and interviews are often used to examine the effect of society in causing anxiety.
Anxiety is usually described in terms of the body’s stress response triggering the fight or flight reaction. This could have been useful in caveman times when we were out hunting but these days it can cause problems. The amygdala deep inside the brain alerts the rest of the brain that a threat is present and triggers an anxiety response just like in the cartoon above. Just knowing this doesn’t help you very much does it? Biology isn’t the whole story.
The survey is a common method of collecting data in anxiety research. People answer questions about their feelings and behaviour on a scale such as the Taylor Manifest Anxiety Scale and this data is subject to statistical analysis. This type of research often leads to thinking of anxiety as due to faulty biology which leads to faulty thinking and disordered behaviour. It is also possible to use surveys with more open-ended questions and answers.
The survey method is cheap and can be used with lots of people at once. A large group of people taking the survey can make the evidence seem likely to be true for most people.
There are problems with the survey method though. The people answering questions may have lied or they may not have taken the survey seriously. They may not have understood the question. The questions may not fully reflect their experiences. Some researchers argue that anxiety scales are not accurate. For example, a statement reads ‘I worry more than most people’ and the answer is marked true or false. Just think about how vague this is and how open to different interpretations. The element of the social environment is missing on these scales. The Twenge (2000) study, which showed increased levels of anxiety from the 1950s to the 1990s, uses this method in the primary research studies.
This means the evidence collected by this method may not be entirely reliable.
This is similar to a survey but a researcher interviews the people taking part. The data from this can be seen to be more accurate than a survey if the interviewer is skilled and well trained. It can produce more detailed data, getting closer to the person’s actual experience. This method can also move beyond the idea that the anxiety is a fault from within the individual. It can bring in the missing factor: the social environment. The researcher can ask people about what might have caused their anxiety or indeed cured it.
Brown et al. (1992) found that anchoring life events, which bring security, could lessen anxiety. An example of such an event could be getting married and settling down. A team of researchers interviewed women about their feelings of anxiety and they did use scales but with an interviewer doing the rating. Then they interviewed the women about what was going on in their lives in a less structured way.
There are problems with this method too. The interviewer is a person and that person could be biased. They bring in their own thoughts and feelings into the social interaction and they might even lead the interviewee into answering in a certain way. They could do this without realizing it. It is also difficult to code this rich data gained from the interviews for analysis and mistakes can creep in here.
The evidence from this method may not be totally reliable either.
This is where the researcher pools the data from lots of previous studies and then performs statistical analysis on all of it to see what the effect is. This is good for looking at large amounts of data but it is so complicated errors can creep in. There may have been errors in the previous studies that are then carried over into the new study. This method is good for looking at trends in society such as has anxiety increased over time. The bad news is that it probably has. The Twenge study (2000) did this and found that anxiety has increased a huge amount since the 1950s. Twenge also compared anxiety levels with social statistics and found that anxiety levels increased along with environmental factors such as low social connectedness and social threat levels. Lonely people living in high crime areas are more likely to have high anxiety levels.
Yet again there could be a problem with the reliability of the evidence due to the possibility of errors in the original studies used for the meta-analysis.
Looking to the Future
A more recent movement in research has criticised all these approaches as having too much power inequality. The researchers are in control. Transformative research approaches want to redress this balance and give more power to the individual. The person with anxiety can collaborate with the researcher to set up the study.
Yes that’s power to you, the individual.
All of this doesn’t mean that anxiety research has all been wrong up to now. If the researcher has tried hard to minimise the risk of errors and performed the study rigorously the evidence can be useful. Both Twenge (2000) and Brown (1992) provide reasonably good evidence to suggest that anxiety can be linked to social factors.
This can be really empowering for people with anxiety symptoms. Instead of a pill or a course of therapy they can think about factors in their lives that could be causing their symptoms.
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