Anxiety in the age of the anxious
Nausea. The feeling of impending doom. Heart racing. Trembling.
These are all symptoms of the blanket term we, as a society, have come to identify as Anxiety Disorders. While it is important to understand that the term anxiety shouldn’t be used as colloquially as it tends to be, there is a lot of research that supports millennials being labelled the “Anxiety Generation.”
Some, like Caroline Beaton of HuffPost, take a very nonchalant stance on this label: blaming anxiety on symptoms ranging from bad sleep habits due to dependency upon technology, our increasingly sedentary lifestyle, or the tendency for anxious individuals to feed off the anxiety of their peers, which tends to increase anxious behaviors in the first place.
But maybe it’s not that easy to casually cast aside the anxiety of millennials by merely suggesting a lifestyle change. Ken Rabow, the founder and CEO of World Wide Youth Mentoring Inc, encourages people to think more thoughtfully in regards to the label of anxiety. Said Rabow, “I find that the blanket diagnosing of Millennials with all forms of anxiety is happening on all fronts. Professionals, parents and the Millennials themselves are seeing the effects of a person who feels unsafe in the world and go with what they see… anxiety. It takes a different way of looking at the issues of anxiety in Millennials to understand the underlying issues. When we never look down as we hammer things, it’s easy to blame the hammer instead of the fact we never learned to really look at what is going on.”
I know quite well how easy it is to blame stress or worry on a word that describes your reactions — it’s almost like people will leave you alone and excuse your behavior if you label the way you respond to moments of extreme stress or fear. I generally consider myself to be an anxious person, but while in college I experienced a very different side to this part of myself. The summer after freshman year of college I spent so much time alone, I found myself worrying more than ever before. Last summer, I actively experienced what I considered to be anxiety attacks — brief spells of unstoppable crying, cold sweats, or extremely heavy breathing, usually a combination of those symptoms. Then I came across an article, written by Elyse Walczyk and published on Medium.
The article, entitled “Dear Even Hanson is Not a Good Play,” is an honest critique of the acclaimed Broadway musical that won six Tony awards this last season. I’d heard of the musical about a seventeen-year-old-boy battling with social anxiety disorder in the wake of a death, and I knew it had received a lot of praise for its depiction of said mental illness. The musical’s website alone calls it, “a powerful anthem,” and “a new American musical about life and the way we live it.” So when I scrolled past an editorial saying the exact opposite of everything I’d ever read, I was intrigued.
This part in particular struck me, and I encourage everyone else to read the piece in its entirety. “Evan Hansen uses his condition as a rationale for his deception and the emotional devastation he causes. Evan Hansen hurts people, but the play would like us to understand him. He can’t help it. He does what he needs to do to fit himself into a world that does not want people like him. Everyone has felt like an outsider and no one deserves to. There is no price tag on feeling accepted and wanted.”
I was stunned. More so than that, I felt guilty for ever considering my own impression of anxiety to give me the excuse to upset the people around me when maybe I shouldn’t even be labelling myself with an actual diagnosable challenge which some people deal with every single day. What worried me even more is that this Broadway musical which had been the talk of the Tony’s and praised by every celebrity far and wide, could be using anxiety as an excuse for usually unacceptable behavior. I didn’t like that it painted anxiety like a crutch and, in the words of Walczyk, represented anxiety as “Nothing more than a metaphorical journey [Evan Hansen] must go on, go through, grow through, grow out of. It’s an ill-defined condition … that he can just get over, that can be overcome with the right amount of self-confidence and affection from parents, lovers, and friends.”
I did not want to imagine that I could be using the term as my own crutch, and yet I could not stop imagining it. So I decided to talk to one of my close friends who deals with diagnosed mental health challenges, and we had a long conversation about the ethics of self-diagnoses. She assured me that while there was a very real misunderstanding about the difference between being anxious and experiencing crippling anxiety, I shouldn’t belittle my own experiences with feeling a lot more than simply anxious about certain things in my life.
Still, I took the article and this discussion to heart and started examining the things in my own life that caused me to react in such a way where I felt like I was experiencing anxiety. The first thing I noticed is that a lot of people say “I’m having major anxiety,” when they really mean, “I’m feeling anxious or stressed.” I’ll admit to doing it before I experienced what it was like to feel scared of reacting, scared that I would become inconsolable for seemingly no reason at all. Or at least not a reason I could explain while my heart was beating so quickly.
The second thing I noticed is that people are very quick to trump up the anxiety in millennials to terms like “fragile snowflake.” There are many individuals out there (I’m looking at you, Tomi Lahren) who think millennials are too emotional and delicate, that we’ve become less robust because we accept things like a sexual/gender spectrum or understand that mental health isn’t just something you can, “man up,” about and get over.
And unfortunately, these people include the older generations of politicians that actually write the legislation surrounding policies on mental health. Andrew Maguire, a writer for the website Unilad, brought up a really significant point in his article titled “Millennials Are An Anxious Generation, And This Is Why.” On the 12th of August, 2015, Hillary Clinton tweeted “How does your student loan debt make you feel? Tell us in three emojis or less.” According to Maguire this was, “the equivalent of talking goo-goo-gaga to a four year old.” For a figure like Hillary Clinton — or let’s be honest, probably the person hired to run her Twitter account — to belittle the burden that student debt has upon most of our generation and equate reactions to emojis is worrisome. It shows a real lack of understanding of the issue from a political figure who could actually make a difference.
Since I have become more self-aware of my own experience with anxiety and the way it affects other people in my generation, I have been able to be a lot more forgiving of myself for once feeling like I was taking a label that did not belong to me. Since this past summer, I have worked hard to educate myself and others about the underlying reasons for experiencing forms of anxiety, and I feel more comfortable with my own experience every day. Since the middle of this past summer I have had two full-blown panic attacks. These are much larger, longer versions of an anxiety attack — during these episodes I had a harder time breathing, moving and sitting still than I ever have in my life. It was incredibly scary and I have worked hard to eliminate the things in my life that cause me to feel like giving into the panic is the only outlet I have. Sometimes it flares up, but I strive to find ways of dealing with it for myself, and helping others who may need the same support. Anxiety is not like the flu, where you can easily test for symptoms and provide some quick fixes. Sometimes it is a real battle just to explain to someone what you are going through, let alone seek help or a diagnosis.
I am lucky to be able to navigate this in such a fashion; some people deal with anxiety they cannot control, anxiety that is harder to push away with just a change in pace or scenery. For some people it is a constant they learn to live with. Rabow provided further insight here, saying, “People who self-diagnose and those who have been given a diagnosis of anxiety disorder need to realize one thing; you are greater than your labels. I do not think those who self-diagnose or have others diagnose them… are taking anything away from those who are professionally diagnosed. Both are suffering. Both need understanding. Both need to rise above perceived limitations.”
The important thing is that as a society, we continue to learn to accept what anxiety is and realize that it comes in all kinds of forms, for all kinds of people. We should not belittle it or close ourselves off to understanding it just because the Millennials seem to be more anxious than the Baby Boomers or Generation X. We are not our parents or our grandparents, and things are very different for us now than it was for them when they were our age. Jules Schroeder of Forbes Magazine writes that “with so much pressure to live up to our ‘greatest potential’ or to have ‘made it’ before turning 30, it’s no surprise that so many of us feel anxious.”
The Global Wellness Institute spoke to Thierry Malleret, an economist, who said that “Younger generations, in particular Millennials, look to have stressful future economic challenges. The trifecta of (1) rising underemployment or unemployment, (2) rising student debt, and (3) rising property prices, makes them asset-poor and debt-rich — the worst possible combination for spurring investment and consumption.”
I truly think that one of the issues older generations see with millennials and anxiety is that few of us have been impacted by historical events such as the Great Depression or a World War. Other generations had a million reasons to be depressed and traumatized and anxious about the state of the world in these times. However, these generations also did not understand as much about mental health as we do today, so it’s not a very fair comparison to make.
Anxiety is a very real, very scary thing. I have been terrified of losing breath and feeling my heart begin to beat at what seems like a million miles an hour. I can only imagine how hard it is to have your anxiety influence your ability to get up each and every day, and face the outside world. While I do consider there to be a very apparent disconnect in the way other generations and lawmakers perceive millennials and anxiety, it is a gap that can be bridged.
Us millennials may get a bad rap for being “fragile snowflakes,” or using mental health to rationalize stress or whatever else the mainstream media would like to throw at us, but I still think that my generation is more than equipped to deal with a lot of the mess that previous generations have left for us. Says Rabow, “I do not think people use anxiety as an excuse for being stressed out… It is no less debilitating if they have been professionally diagnosed or not… Unless you are in a person’s shoes, you cannot know how hard anxiety can be to do battle with on a day-to-day basis. I consider these people performing acts of quiet heroism every time they try to rise above their challenges, whether they are victorious that day or not. To those suffering with anxiety, I say to you, have faith, seek out mentors, align with those who see you as more than your labels.”
When I sought out help, I realized I was not alone. And neither are you.
Mila Phelps-Friedl is a third-year journalism major. You can email them at firstname.lastname@example.org. To contact the Counseling and Psychological Services Center, call 607-274-3136. To speak to a counselor for consultation or urgent concerns: Call 607-274-3136. To reach out to mentoring through Ken Rabow, check out this website, https://www.reallifecoaching.ca:10400/