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You may have experienced it yourself.

That gut-churning rising nausea, looseness of the bowels, tightness in your chest, or feeling faint.

That heightened emotion we call anxiety.

It shows up in a variety of forms, levels of intensity and impacts us in different ways.

It’s commonly ascribed to just being part of living, our response to a stressful situation.

But the statistics around anxiety are worrying, especially in the younger generations.

I’ve lost count of how many times after a presentation or workshop I’ve been approached by a worried parent who shares their concerns about their child or young adult. The stories shared a common thread, anxiety is a growing problem for our younger generations.

While it’s normal to have some stress or anxiety around exams, moving to a new school, starting a new job and making new friends, what’s being experienced is anything but normal.

What’s normal about a 14-year-old who is exceptionally bright and doing really well at school having suicidal thoughts because that high mark is never high enough?

What’s normal about a University student unable to attend class or complete their assignments because of their mental health issues?

What’s normal about an 11-year-old self-harming because they are seen as “different” and excluded from their peer group?

We have the statistics by the bucketload.

The 2017 Youth Mental Health Report by Mission Australia and the Black Dog Institute confirmed mental illness to be a growing challenge with

  • 1:4 young people aged 15-19 are at risk of serious mental illness
  • An increasing risk as adolescents age (and especially in Indigenous groups and young women)

A survey from Headspace reported close to 70% of those surveyed as saying their mental health was poor or fair with 2/3 reporting high or very high psychological distress over the previous 12 months.

A report by the Pew Research Centre published in the Economist found 70% of respondents in Generation Z (i.e. born after 1997) reported anxiety and depression was a major issue for them along with bullying and exam pressures.

The 2019 Deloitte Global Millennial Survey executive summary talks about a generation “disrupted” by societal discord and digital transformation, citing disillusionment in millennials and Gen Z along with a lack of faith and pessimism in societal institutions and social progress with one psychotherapist citing decision fatigue as a major source of stress for those millennials presenting to his rooms.

What’s going on?

Should we be blaming social media, the complexities and challenges of modern life, helicoptering parenting or having too much choice when it comes to making decisions about subject choices and career paths?

Rather than spending too much time navel-gazing at what is a complex issue with multiple contributing factors, the question is what can we do about this quickly and effectively and turn the tide?

Remembering too that anxiety, high stress and depression frequently cohabit together. It can be hard sometimes to fathom out where one ends and the other starts.

Exam stress

In a previous epoch, there was a time when 11-year-olds were subjected to something called the 11 plus exam in the UK that was devised to as a way to determine which type of high school, technical, grammar or secondary modern they were eligible for. Grammar school was only for those that passed.

Being an anxious child there may have been a reason my parents didn’t tell me I was being put forward to sit the exam until the Saturday morning came when I was taken in the car to a rather gloomy and very dusty hall and told the reason why I was there.

There was no special prep, no “must complete, otherwise, you’ve got no hope” pre-exam course or any other lead-in. While annoyed at having my weekend disrupted in this fashion, but having no say in the matter, I grumpily complied and fortunately passed.

Roll on a few years later at University where a girlfriend who had aced everything in our year was having a complete meltdown before our final exams in Sociology and Psychology. As worried friends, we arranged a schedule of social support taking it in turns to sit with her as she raged and wept.

While our own plans for revision were severely disrupted, our friend’s safety was our paramount concern. There wasn’t such a thing as access to pastoral care in those days.

The outcome? Happily, we all passed, though perhaps with a lower aggregate mark than we had hoped for. Our friend, well naturally she topped the year and went home with a wheelbarrow load of trophies and prizes.

Schools love to brag about how well their students perform. It validates their expertise as educators in a system that still views success as an academic record.

But there’s a growing need for educators to shift this perspective and it is starting to take shape (slowly). Parents want nothing more than to see their offspring successful and happy.

The problem here is that as competition for places in Universities rises to ridiculous levels as in medicine, this provides the perfect storm when the internal drive to succeed is amplified by the external expectations of others potentially lead to paralysing levels of anxiety, depression and stress.

Our success as a human should never be defined by an exam mark, but if the question being asked is “great you got 95%, do you see a way to get the other 5%?” we are deviating from ensuring our kids develop the skillsets needed to mature into happy and healthy well-adjusted adults with a curiosity and love of learning.

The big four factors contributing to anxiety levels include,

1. Loss of trust in ‘those-in-charge’ and institutions.

Trust has been swindling for some time. Faith in governments and those elected to take care of us and our communities is missing in action. If you can’t trust those our caregivers, what hope is there for our future?  Which is why ignoring the calls by the Gen Z’s and Millennials to be taken seriously about those issues they are genuinely concerned about is fuelling their anxieties.

2. Exposure to ideals which don’t reflect reality.

While social media is fantastic for keeping us connected it can warp our perspective of the world.

Comparitonitis leads to despair when everyone else is clearly having such a great time, and you’re not there. These superficial blinks of another person’s life are not real, but they impact our thinking as if they are.

We start to believe that unless we are the perfect size 8, with a veneered smile and realigned/shaped body parts that we are something less than acceptable, doomed to a life of boring beige mediocrity.

3. Exposure to the nasty side of life.

Live streaming means we are able to be in the moment of chaos and destruction, observing the unimaginable, witnesses to cruelty and human suffering. While it’s important to have an idea what is going on, our media is essentially bad news and with the 24-hour news cycle, it’s hard to break away from the latest calamity, collapse or incomprehensible statement from a world leader. It can lead to a sense of being inconsequential and disempowered to make a positive difference.

4. Social anxiety and shame

Failure is a normal part of life but dealing with failure can be associated with great shame and demoralisation. Hikikomori is the Japanese term first coined by Tamaki Saito in his 1998 book Social Isolation – Adolescence Without End used to describe young people (mostly young men) who haven’t left their homes or interacted with others for six months. They socially withdraw, gradually removing themselves from contact with friends and family. The problem gets worse the longer they stay withdrawn, the stronger the sense of social failure, loss of self-esteem and confidence making it even harder to leave home.

The average age of a Hikikomori used to be 15 but is now 32. The condition is not confined to Japan having been described elsewhere in other parts of Asia, U.S. Spain, Italy and France. It’s believed to stem from a mixture of psychological, cultural and societal influences according to Professor Takahiro Kato, but no single factor has been identified.

Tackling these social issues requires our urgent attention because they cannot be fixed overnight.

The need is for greater mental wellbeing

This is about feeling in control, more capable of dealing with the ups and downs of life, being more effective and confident in tackling our tasks and experiencing greater joy and happiness.

What this looks like includes

  1. Social Support.
    Out of everything, feeling loved, cared for and supported through difficult times is the most powerful enabler. It’s not about  ”fixing” the problem but being present, listening and encouraging what they can do to feel better about themselves. Spending time with family and friends in “normal” activities helps to deflect attention away from worries and concerns and reconnect with what provides pleasure and joy.
  2. Nurturing a Thrival Mindset.
    Carol Dweck talks about how we operate either from a fixed or growth-oriented mindset. But when you’re feeling down or extremely anxious having the self-belief to seek out the positive and grow can feel too overwhelming. A thrival mindset is about starting from where you are right now and putting in place tiny positive steps founded on hope things can get better, even if that feels like just a glimmer at present.
  3. Self-acceptance.
    This is hard when all you see are your flaws and imperfections. But learning to accept and even get to like all those jiggly bits is the way towards self-compassion and feeling that no matter what, we are always “enough.”
  4. Having real conversations.
    Denial, withdrawal, embarrassment, shame are all survival tools we adopt when we are in pain. Sharing how you truly feel can make you feel very vulnerable especially if the mask of perfectionism previously helped keep you feeling safe.  All emotions are valid including the ones we experience in secret and sharing these helps others to understand.
  5. Including self-care.
    Getting enough sleep, eating good food and being physically active are the fundamentals to better health and wellbeing. Eating crap or not eating because you can’t be bothered, staying up all night watching Netflix or gaming is detrimental as is not getting out into some fresh air and sunshine. The current recommendation being to spend 2 hours in nature every week as a minimum for our mental wellbeing.

The modern curse of high anxiety can be addressed but needs our urgent attention.

What do you see as the way forward to help our youngest and most vulnerable generations?

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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