Born between the 1980s and 2000s? You may find yourself more overwhelmed by life’s daily stressors than your parents (and their parents) did “when they were your age.” Psychologists and educators across the United States agree: One more concern to add to the seemingly endless list of things wrong with the millennial generation is our unusually high rates of anxiety.
Not only do today’s 20- and 30-somethings report more perceived stress than previous generations, millennials also cop to more social isolation and higher degrees of loneliness resulting from all this stress than their moms, dads, and older acquaintances report. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that around 30 percent of 18- to 29-years-olds suffer from an anxiety disorder.
The consequences are far-reaching: Not only does anxiety get in the way of work, academic success, relationships, and sexual satisfaction, the highly uncomfortable experience can also drive sufferers toward unhealthy coping mechanisms. Anxious individuals are more prone to develop eating disorders, abuse substances, engage in self-harm, or fall into obsessive behavior patterns (from pathological gambling to hair-pulling and skin-picking) in an effort to overcome (through rituals or altered states of consciousness) the mental anguish they're constantly dealing with.
Add to this anxiety’s contribution to digestive, sleep, immune, and heart problems—as well as the fact that it costs Americans more than $42 billion per year—and it’s clear that our generation’s burgeoning inability to deal is no minuscule issue.
What’s Going on With Us?
A lack of emotional resilience is the major culprit underlying millennials’ inclination to freak out in the face of just about everything, says Peter Gray, Ph.D., a research professor at Boston College and author of Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. A huge factor contributing to this deficiency is the overprotective care-giving practices many of us were raised by that shielded us from adequate (and adult-free) playtime, he adds.
We don’t let kids get away from adults these days. Parents are always running interference, breaking up fights, preventing anyone from climbing a tree too high or getting lost,” Gray says. “As a result, kids don’t have the opportunity to learn how to deal with the frustration, anxiety, fears, or trouble that arise from these sources and solve their own problems.”
End result: We’ve missed some crucial opportunities to develop autonomy, intuition, and the belief in our own ability to get through hard times, so we’re more often debilitated by anxiety than galvanized to problem-solve when it strikes.
Karen Cassiday, Ph.D., President-elect of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, adds that a pervasive misunderstanding of stress and anxiety also accounts for our generation’s heightened psychological angst. “So many millennials have been raised with the idea that it’s bad to be stressed—that normal events, like final exams, someone not using the proper term for your sexual orientation, roommate issues, or breakups are all too stressful and can’t possibly be conceived of as anything other than the end of the world. “
A hypersensitivity to protecting oneself against every possible emotional slight—evident in the trigger warnings within college syllabi and many campuses’ obsessive attention to creating so-called “safe spaces”—is also a problem, she notes. All this serves to reinforce the perception that stress is 100 percent bad—which, unfortunately, amplifies anxiety.
We’ve come to believe that we’re not supposed to have stress. But the truth is human beings need stress to grow and function.
“Anytime you improperly give people the message that they’re fragile and can only live and grow in very specific environments, it makes them feel ill-equipped to handle the regular rough and tumble of life,” Cassiday says. “We’ve come to believe that we’re not supposed to have stress. But the truth is human beings need stress to grow and function.”
Remove ourselves from stressors entirely and, like children denied opportunities to learn and grow through exploration and play, we set ourselves up for what Cassiday calls “a chronic inability to take risks and master challenges.” Results are the same in this case: Rather than being energized by the physiological stirrings of anxiety, we collapse under its weight and forfeit the chance to weather a new challenge.
What Anxiety Really Does to Your Body
It can help foster the feeling you’ve got a handle on things when you understand what the heck’s going on in your body and brain to begin with, Cassiday says.
On a physiological level, anxiety boils down to our evolutionarily ingrained fear response, explains Scott Rauch, M.D., professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and president of McLean Hospital’s Psychiatry Division. In essence, this is the hormonal and physiological shift we experience in response to real or perceived threats. Our breath and heart rate quicken, our pupils dilate, and blood flow redirects away from digestion out toward our extremities—all with the intent of mobilizing our bodily resources (adrenaline, cortisol, and blood sugar included) to combat whatever menace we’re up against.
A small, almond-shaped structure in the center(ish) of your brain called the amygdala kick-starts this response, Rauch says, initiating a cascade of signals throughout our nervous system. Other parts of our brain (namely the medial frontal cortex and the hippocampus) help us distinguish between safe and dangerous contexts so that we don’t get mobilized all for nothing.
The problem with most cases of anxiety, Rauch says, is that the amygdala sounds the alarm bell regardless of whether a threat is actually there, either because we’ve come to associate a particular situation with some form of punishment or because we’ve learned to respond to all inklings of discomfort as potential harbingers of imminent “trauma.”
Keep in mind too that stress and anxiety are two different but closely linked experiences. Stress, Cassiday says, “constitutes any situation that requires a person to adapt or cope; it doesn’t have an innate positive or negative quality.”
Anxiety, on the other hand, is a reaction to stress. Some anxiety in the face of stress is warranted, Cassiday says. (Think: nerves prior to giving a lecture, taking an exam, or performing; sending a text to a new potential significant other; or fielding a call from an overly nosy parent.) But when the anxiety fails to motivate us, is experienced as impassable, and becomes something we crumble beneath, that’s when it becomes problematic.
How Much Is Too Much?
If anxiety is chronic and unrelenting and gets in the way of work, school, daily functioning, and physical health, you’ve likely got yourself an anxiety disorder. These come in several forms: generalized anxiety disorder (the most common), panic attacks or panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, and specific phobias.
Those prone to excess worrying, panic, or intrusive thoughts may easily fall into the trap of compulsive behaviors (e.g., checking, washing, obsessive calculations of calories or repetitions at the gym, skin and hair picking, nail biting), Cassiday says, because those actions temporarily “neutralize” emotional anguish. Desperate and impulsive attempts to flee or escape stressful situations are other common behaviors exhibited by people who meet the criteria for anxiety disorders, she adds.
Unfortunately the more we give in to immediate urges to flee, check, or obsess, the more we reinforce those behaviors’ hold on our psyches.
Unfortunately the more we give in to immediate urges to flee, check, or obsess, the more we reinforce those behaviors’ hold on our psyches, Cassiday says. (Curious readers can learn more about anxiety disorders via ADAA.org’s helpful factsheets and videos.)
The silver lining embedded in the awfulness of anxiety disorders—and especially “subclinical” levels of incessant dread—is that there are a handful of helpful, proven tools available:
Medication is one evidence-backed solution for those of us who perceive our anxiety as unmanageable (i.e., if you feel it’s getting in the way of your work, social and romantic life, or your sleep). Getting a prescription for a regular or as-needed antidote to intolerable stress is nothing to be ashamed of. But beginning a new medication regimen does need to be thoroughly discussed and monitored by a psychiatrist or other trained physician. Talk with your doc about side effects, drug interactions, when you should take a pill, and for how long.
Another tried-and-trusted option: cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). “Cognitive” or thought-focused exercises retrain the mind to react to stressors with less fear, questioning the validity of initial impressions and thoughts, while “behavioral” exercises allow individuals to gradually face situations or experiences they've been avoiding. Ultimately CBT can shift knee-jerk responses that come from being in an anxious state, as well as the compensatory but pathological behaviors that accompany them.
One more course of action, particularly for generalized anxiety disorder, is mindfulness-based stress reduction, which uses formal and informal meditation practices to cultivate present moment awareness—the antidote to worry and rumination.
For those of us who can’t afford a therapist, Cassiday says that self-help books and many apps, such as Self-Help Anxiety Management for Android and iOS, can help. (For more digital and less costly methods of healthier self-soothing, check out these 81 Awesome Mental Health Resources.)
Seeking out trusted peers, professors, and other confidants who help give us a reality check and shore up our courage to get through tough times can also be helpful, studies suggest. In addition to meditation, yoga and exercise can also help us ride out difficult thoughts and feelings.
Lastly, in the event someone approaches you with their own intolerable stress cases, Gray advocates helping them find a solution rather than indulging their belief that they're a helpless victim of their turmoil.
It’s impossible to lead a completely stress-free life. Even anxiety itself is a part of everyday existence. But how we respond to—and utilize—those uncomfortable stirrings in our brains determine whether we, as kids or adults, will actually be all right. Next time you’re feeling overwhelmed about something you think is the end of the world, take a breath, reach into your tool bag of coping skills (see above!), and realize that although it may be difficult, onerous, or otherwise distressing, you’re likely more up to the challenge than you believe.