• davewofford

The Great Anxiety Epidemic

The New York Times just published a great article on the apparent explosion of anxiety among American teenagers. The author includes some revealing data:

  • Anxiety has replaced depression as the most common complaint among college students seeking counseling.

  • In 2016, a whopping 62% of undergraduates reported overwhelming anxiety in the previous year.

  • In the last decade, hospital admissions for suicidal teenagers more than doubled, with a spike in admissions at the beginning of each school year.

  • Anxiety affects nearly one-third of adolescents and adults, making it the most common mental-health challenge in the U.S.

It’s important to note that such data can be explained either by an increase in actual suffering, an increase in diagnoses of pre-existing suffering, or both. Whatever the exact formula, it’s fair to claim that anxiety is among the most important challenges facing young people.

Unfortunately, our digital environments, sedentary lifestyle, over-scheduled calendars, and increasingly fragmented social and familial structures are transforming a natural biological response - alertness to threat in the environment - into something chronic, pernicious, and deeply destructive of our quality of life.

An intelligent response to the burdens of anxiety works on at least 3 levels:

  • Creating a lifestyle that is supportive of the experience of peace, well-being, and safety.

  • Building internal skills to shift the body’s anxiety response (fight/flight/freeze) into a more relaxed state (rest/digest).

  • Increasing the tolerance for the stress response itself, such that even when the body edges towards an anxious or activated state we are able to leverage that energy productively, and not be sucked into a hurricane of anguish.

In other words, we should take an approach that balances making positive shifts in lifestyle with one that emphasizes building internal resources for those many, many moments when our lack of control over our world asserts itself.

The NY Times article makes a great point here, citing an article in the Atlantic that describes the spike in mental health diagnoses in teenagers following the explosion of smartphone adoption. Again, there may be confounding variables here, but the author makes a compelling argument that smartphones offer a seductive promise of control. We can craft the impression we wish to make with meticulous attention to detail. We curate the highlights of our lives to share with others. We manage our relationships from a safe digital distance. These are all strategies that fail miserably in the world of classrooms, social environments, job interviews, and the countless vagaries of daily life. In short, smartphones, digital environments, and social media have allowed us to replace the (often uncomfortable) process of building resilience with a tragically fragile, short-lived, and ultimately false sense of control and comfort.

The bad news is that building resilience is hard. It requires a commitment to turn towards our discomforts, in a firm and compassionate way. We simply cannot build these capacities if we confine ourselves to our comforts.

The good news is that, with guidance, patience, and a fair bit of courage, we can expand our capacity to be uncomfortable. We can teach our bodies and brains that discomfort is not necessarily a threat. We can over time build a new way of being uncomfortable, one which does not dominate our awareness, choices, or abilities.

The great news is that, because we are biological creatures, we are essentially adaptation machines. If we feed ourselves the appropriate experience and maintain a curious, courageous attitude, we cannot help but grow. The capacity for change is built right into the fabric of our cells.

How has anxiety affected your life? What strategies have you found to be helpful? Please share your experience in the comments.

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