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‘An anxious nation’: Barnes & Noble sees a surge in sales of books about stress

Barnes & Noble says sales are up of books about anxiety and seeking happiness. (KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)
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Yes, modern life in America is ... a lot. Psychologists say they’ve seen the toll it’s taken on people, and surprisingly so has Barnes & Noble.

Sales of books related to anxiety rose 26 percent in June from a year ago at the bookseller. Liz Harwell, its senior director of merchandising, said the company had never seen a comparable increase in book sales related to anxiety. Shoppers were particularly drawn to workbooks and tool-kits on how to deal with anxiety, she said, suggesting “we may be living in an anxious nation.”

“But the good news,” Harwell said, "is that book buyers across the country are also looking for solutions to their stress.”

In December 2017, Gallup reported that 79 percent of Americans felt stress sometimes or frequently during their day. Only 17 percent said they rarely felt stressed, with 4 percent saying they never did.

Psychologists pointed to today’s political and cultural climate as a driver of Americans' stress and anxiety. Plus, there are the technological factors that bring those issues to the fore. A February 2017 report by the American Psychological Association examined technology and social media and their links to stress and overall well-being. The report found that nearly one-fifth of Americans pointed to the use of technology “as a very or somewhat significant source of stress.”

“All of the rules have been thrown out the window in terms of the bigger social structure,” said Michelle Newman, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Penn State University.

Newman noted that many of the states where customers bought more anxiety-related books tend to lean liberal -- parts of the country where stress surrounding issues from climate change to hate crimes may be particularly high.

Book buyers in California showed the largest increase in anxiety books over the past year, followed by shoppers in Michigan and Massachusetts, according to Barnes & Noble. Buyers in Texas, North Carolina and Florida showed the largest drops.

But there is some encouraging news: Shoppers are also looking for ways to boost their happiness. Barnes & Noble found that books in the happiness category grew a whopping 83 percent over the past year, with shoppers in Tennessee, California and Minnesota buying the lion’s share.

Stefan Hofmann, a professor of psychology at Boston University’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, said that individual tragedies or events typically don’t lead to a higher frequency of long-term anxiety for the public.

“But perhaps the Trump era has changed that,” he said. “I think people are suspicious of one another, there’s hatred and groups have been isolated. There’s uncertainty in the world.”

Still, the ways anxiety-related disorders are measured changes over time, making it difficult to conduct rigid comparisons to just a few decades ago. Hofmann said there has been a rise in the acceptance of stress and anxiety-related issues, with more people open to seeking help.

Jonathan Abramowitz, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said he was “not at all surprised” by the Barnes & Noble sales spike.

Abramowitz said Americans do feel more stressed, especially given the current political climate. But society as a whole has also labeled negative emotions -- like stress and anxiety -- as feelings that should be shoved away to make room for a constant state of happiness, he said.

As a result, society’s tolerance for stress and anxiety has gone down, despite the fact that those emotions “are normal, healthy emotions that everyone experiences," Abramowitz said.

Hofmann, Abramowitz and Newman all said it’s important for people seeking help to find books based on science and research. That can include books based on cognitive behavioral therapy, as well as resources recommended by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America and the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies.

Beyond book buying or seeing a therapist, Newman said there are steps people can take to remove themselves from the anxiety in society, such as limiting the news consumed every day. That can be a powerful step even before cycles of worrying and anxiety take root, she said.

Nearly seven in 10 Americans are exhausted by the amount of news available today, according to a June report by the Pew Research Center. A similar chunk of the population said they felt information overload in the lead-up to the the 2016 presidential election, Pew found, when about six in 10 Americans felt worn out by the amount of election coverage.

“Worry is self-perpetuating, so that when you start worrying it’s very hard to stop,” Newman said. “You can sort of work yourself up, so it’s actually better to ... cut it off and not focus on the most catastrophic scenarios and keep yourself grounded in the things you actually enjoy.”

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