I’m so anxious …”
“I’m under so much pressure …”
“I’m totally stressed …”
No wonder our conversations are peppered with these phrases given one-third of the US population will be affected by a diagnosable anxiety disorder during their lifetime (1). It seems that all generations—from teenagers to senior adults—feel heightened stress and tension today. Why is that? And what can you do to help yourself and the people you care about navigate our anxious world?
The Reasons for the Anxiety Surge
We don’t know conclusively why anxiety is rising, but we can make a few educated guesses. Around 2012, mental health challenges surged nationally. This was the same year that the US reached a landmark in our use of technology as the portion of Americans owning smart phones surpassed 50%.
It’s an overstatement to say technology is “causing” our mental health struggles, but recent shifts in statistics around adolescent risk behaviors give a window into how the two are linked. Eight years ago when teenage anxiety, depression and suicide all rose, teen sexual activity, substance use, and pregnancy all dropped. One way we can interpret this data is that risk behaviors generally involving two or more teenagers in the same room together have dipped while those that teenagers experience by themselves—possibly holed up alone in their room seeing online what everyone is doing without them—are escalating (2).
But technology is by no means the only culprit. Even when family members don’t intend to, Millennials and Gen Z often feel pressured by parents and caregivers to achieve. And an increase in “helicopter parenting” approaches has led parents to rescue young people when they struggle, instead of letting them work through their challenges and develop the grit they need to withstand today’s stressful reality.
Odds are good that our progression towards ambient busyness as a society is also making all of us more anxious. Concerned about the effects of busyness on young people’s mental health, well-respected adolescent researcher Lisa Damour recommends that 25% of a young person’s schedule should be unplanned and unscheduled (3). That’s a far cry from the all-day-rushing-from-activity-to-activity breathless pace most of us experience today.
Three Questions to Ask Yourself and Others
We would likely experience greater freedom from anxiety if we could ask ourselves and others we care about three major questions.
Without stress and anxiety, I likely wouldn’t be alive today. Neither would you. Physiologically, stress and anxiety have ensured our survival by alerting us to dangerous situations (e.g., a car is coming right at us) that activate our “flight-or-fight” response. In these times of alarm, our heart rate increases and oxygen rushes to our muscles as we prepare to either face the potential danger or run away.
Anxiety is like a flashing light on our dashboard, warning us that something’s not right and we need to pay attention. So our first step when we or someone we care about feels anxious (and there is no car coming right at us) is to ask: What do I need to pay attention to? What is my body, mind, or soul trying to tell me? What warning do I need to heed? Underneath many of our strong emotional reactions is a kernel of insight about our psyche or emotions that is worth noticing.
While anxiety is supposed to be an ally that prods our growth and learning, when that warning light on our dashboard flashes constantly, our essential alarm system is likely on overdrive—and we’re in danger of running ragged. In those seasons, we need a better second response to anxiety. So after we’ve asked what we need to pay attention to, it’s time to ask a second question: What healthy and productive step could I take now?
The answer might be physical activity or engagement in a favorite hobby, a good conversation with a trusted friend, or a change in location. Perhaps it’s an extended time of prayer and worship—by yourself or with others. Or the best mental pivot may actually be to stop trying to suppress anxiety and instead experience the freedom of continuing to engage in all of life’s meaningful experiences and relationships, even while feeling anxious.
Which brings us to the third question to help us and others battling anxiety: Who do we need more time with in this season? Which of our friends, family or colleagues is particularly nourishing and empathetic? How can we spend more time with them? Perhaps it might also be helpful to ask, who doesn’t understand our struggles with anxiety, and who might even aggravate them? How can we get greater distance from—and less time with—those toxic voices?
A therapist we consulted while developing our Faith in an Anxious World resources recommends asking a young person: On a scale of 1-10, how severe is your anxiety? If it’s in the 1-3 range, it’s likely no big deal; a 4 or 5 is handle-able; a 6 or above merits special help and likely time with a trained mental health professional.
If your anxiety pegs at 6 or higher, some time with a caring professional therapist can help you answer these questions and explore additional interventions.
Few of us will be able to completely eliminate anxiety. But through honest conversation with close friends, mentors, and family members about these three questions, we can each feel a little stressed and a little more supported.
1. Borwin Bandelow and Sophie Michaelis, “Epidemiology of Anxiety Disorders in the 21st Century,” Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, September 2015, 17(3): 327–335)
2. Jean M. Twenge, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?,” The Atlantic, September 2017
3. Lisa Damour, Under Pressure (New York: Ballantine Books, 2019), 61.