Saturday 18 March 2017

Anxiety: the epidemic sweeping through Generation Y!

“Laugh a deep ho-ho from your belly and circle your waist,” the instructor said, patting her 

big tummy as she wobbled it around. Midway through my university degree, I found myself at a “laughing yoga” class in a dank north London parish hall with my two housemates. We stood in a circle jiggling our bellies, uncomfortably forcing loud laughter for two long minutes

, before moving on to another laughing exercise. Why were we there? Because we hoped it 

would help mitigate the anxiety we each suffered from to varying degrees.
I have tried yoga, self-help books and Headspace, a mindfulness app, to calm the anxious thoughts that plague me. Those thoughts tend to be irrational, and although they are not nearly as bad as they were when I was a student, now, at the age of 25, they overwhelm me whenever I’m feeling tired or stressed, though I don’t tell anyone about it much.
They include, but are not restricted to, a fear of failure, disappointment, not being good enough and not being liked. I worry that I don’t know who I am, that I look fat. I put off opening my post and checking my bank balance because it makes me feel so nervous. Towards the end of my degree just going to lectures had me out in a rash.
As a teenager I experienced no more than the usual stress and worry about passing exams and running in cross-country races. But since leaving home I’ve experienced feelings of dread that make me want to stay in bed all day, compulsiveness that causes me to binge on chocolate and caffeine, and, just once, a panic attack. It comes over me like a fog that clouds my rationality, leaving me oversensitive, low in confidence and physically exhausted. I didn’t think that being an adult would be this hard.

But compared with many of my friends, I’m doing OK. Anxiety is a spectrum disorder, and is one of the most prevalent mental conditions in Britain. Many of us experience anxious feelings to varying degrees, and symptoms can include difficulty concentrating, tiredness, muscular aches, insomnia and, at an extreme, full-blown panic attacks. Anxiety can be the underlying symptom of eating disorders and hypochondria, and among Generation Y (those of us born between 1980 and 2000) and even those younger, it is on the rise.
Four of the seven girls I have lived with since leaving home have suffered from anxiety. One friend used to have regular panic attacks on the Underground for fear of terrorist attacks. I have taken two others to A&E because they have, entirely without reason, been convinced that they had meningitis or had been infected with HIV. A friend calls a bout of bulimia a “normal stage” as so many of her friends experienced the same.
Some of them have sought professional help: I have two friends who are on medication for anxiety, including Lisa Luxx, the 25-year-old editor of the independent magazine Prowl House, who takes citalopram. The last time she went to pick up her prescription, she tells me, “I queued behind four people in their early 20s who were all also picking up citalopram.”
Anxiety is hardly new, despite it being recognised as a clinical category only in the past 30 years. Sigmund Freud wrote a book about it in 1926, as did Soren Kierkegaard 80 years before him. In the fourth century BC, Hippocrates wrote that anxiousness is “a difficult disease. The patient thinks he has something like a thorn, something pricking him in his viscera, and nausea torments him.”
But a collection of recent reports suggests that anxiety and unhappiness among young people are growing. According to the British charity YouthNet, a third of young women and one in 10 young men suffer from panic attacks. Studies in America show a similar trend: a 2013 survey reported that 57 per cent of female university students had experienced episodes of “overwhelming anxiety” in the previous year. Marjorie Wallace, the chief executive of the charity Sane, calls mine the age of desperation. “Growing up has always been difficult, but this sense of desperation? That’s new,” she says.
So, what’s going on? The rise of technology, overly-protective parenting and “exam-factory” schooling are among the reasons psychologists suggest for our generational angst. Another, brought up on multiple occasions by my peers and by psychologists I spoke to, is the luxury (as ungrateful as it sounds) of too much choice.
Tesco online sells more than 200 varieties of milk; Levi’s has 233 types of women’s jeans; the University of Durham offers half a dozen different archaeology degrees. With so many options available, there is no excuse for making the less-than-perfect choice. And with money tight and more competition for jobs, much is invested in the correct decision.
“From research we know that people with no choice are significantly more resilient because they can blame life or other people when they make a wrong decision,” Pieter Kruger, a psychologist based in London, explains. “But if you make a wrong decision having had a range of choice, you have no one to blame but yourself. We become much more obsessive because we want to make the right decision every time.”
  • Claire Eastham, 26, who first suffered a panic attack at the age of 15, now writes the blog We Are All Mad Here about her struggles with anxiety. “I spend a lot of time worrying about 
    what I am going to do with my life,” she says. “Previous 
    generations had choice taken out of their hands. If you are told 
    what to do it takes the pressure away.”
For me, decision-making often leads to a sort of paralysis. I can’t buy a pair of shoes without obsessively checking many shops, online and in-store, gathering the opinions of my mother, my sister in Australia or the whole of my Facebook network, before finally freaking out at being unable to rank banal details and giving up completely. This is obviously not one of the world’s biggest problems, but when every decision becomes this crippling, life can feel exhausting. I’m just as bad at committing to social plans for fear I should be doing something else, so I find myself at home feeling guilty about my misspent youth and wondering what is wrong with me.
Another problem is technology. Like most Millennials I feel naked without my phone and am rarely without it. It gives me a window to the world that not only provides a constant stream of news (which in itself can be a cause of anxiety) but also enables me to keep up with anyone from friends to Kim Kardashian.
Simply being removed from a device is enough to trigger stress levels, a 2014 study by California State University, Dominguez Hills, found. According to a 2014 study by Baylor University in Waco, Texas, female students in America spend an average of 10 hours on their phone a day – for men it’s eight.
This keeping on top of what everyone is doing on social media can lead to Fomo, Fear of Missing Out, Kruger says. “Fomo is very real and can be a constant addiction that affects anxiety levels and a general sense of wellbeing.” Social media allows us to compare everything. And I do: relationships, diet, figure, hair, clothes, holidays, exercise regimes – not just with my friends, but with the likes of BeyoncĂ© too.
I grew up in the countryside with only moderate social media exposure and was ignorant of these feelings of failure that come with comparison until I left home. Now, according to the Centre for Social Justice, more British teenagers own a smartphone than have a father living at home, and on it they can compare their lives via Instagram or Facebook any time of day.
Plenty of research suggests that social media causes low mood and increases symptoms of depression. As most of us post only the best parts of our lives online, the difficulties come with establishing the line between reality and fiction.
The YouTube stars Zoe Suggs, 24, better known as Zoella, and Tanya Burr, 25, who have nine million followers between them, are cases in point. Though they have both blogged about experiencing anxiety (Zoella is an ambassador for the charity Mind), most of their confident, polished videos show them in their beautifully decorated homes baking and giving make-up and hair tutorials.
According to Kruger this blurring of reality fuels my generation’s drive for perfection and causes “young people to create a set of ideals that they think they need to live up to”.
This pressure isn’t only internal. We are told in job interviews, in advice articles and by careers advisers that we must write blogs to prove ourselves knowledgeable, that we must establish and carefully manage our online presence before applying for jobs, so that when employers Google us, they find our best selves. There is no room for error: online, everything lasts an eternity.
“Young people have to almost become a brand – Brand Me: how I look, how I feel, what I am doing every day,” Lucie Russell, the campaign director at the charity YoungMinds, says. “We didn’t have that 20 years ago.”
Despite its name, social media can foster a feeling of isolation. A 2014 YouGov survey showed that people aged 18-24 were twice as likely to be anxious about being alone than those aged over 55. I don’t talk to some of my old friends from school because I know what they have been doing from Facebook or Instagram. It is our smartphones, rather than real relationships, that we turn to as the antidote to loneliness.
Ironically, social media can foster a sense of isolation

Ironically, social media can foster a sense of isolation CREDIT: DAN BURN-FORTI
As Sherry Turkle, the author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, says, “Phones in our pockets offer the gratifying fantasy that we never have to be alone. The moment people are alone, even for a few seconds, they become anxious, they panic, they fidget, they reach for a device.”
Jean M Twenge, the author of Generation Me, suggests that anxiety levels have risen among my peers as a result of what she calls a narcissism epidemic. “The relationship between narcissism and anxiety may seem paradoxical, but the extrinsic values that Generation Y value that correlate with narcissism, such as money, fame and image, also correlate with anxiety.”
Twenge argues that the raised expectations of Generation Me are a result of parenting and education. “It’s much more common now for parents to tell kids they are special, and in education it’s about boosting children’s self-esteem. Everyone gets a trophy for participating, which is not how the real world works. When Generation Y hit their 20s and the world isn’t giving them the attention and feedback they think they deserve, they can end up anxious and depressed.”
Today, exam pressure starts young, and is continual. Not so long ago children were examined only at 11, 16 and 18. Until GCSEs were introduced in 1986, 16-year-olds typically sat nine O-levels, and 40 years ago, fewer than 20 per cent of pupils stayed on to take A-levels. Today, things are very different. A new “baseline” assessment will be introduced in September for five-year-olds, yearly exams are the norm from primary school, children take up to 15 GCSEs and the recent introduction of the A* grade at A-level adds an even higher standard to attain. At some schools testing is even more frequent – my 12-year-old cousin told me recently she was “really stressed” because of monthly assessments.

One thing we do have to be thankful for, however, is that the issue of anxiety is more in the open, has become less stigmatised. In Girls, Lena Dunham’s character struggles with OCD, and Dunham has spoken openly about her own experiences with anxiety. Readers of Stella magazine will also have followed Bryony Gordon’s recent battle with OCD.
Most universities now offer counselling services and stress relief through classes such as yoga. But the NHS has been slow to catch up. There is very little data on the numbers of young people suffering from anxiety disorders or taking antidepressants. Anecdotally, it seems that seeing a GP is rarely productive.
“I saw my family doctor after I had a nervous breakdown,” Claire Eastham says. “He recommended camomile tea – not particularly helpful.” When a friend saw her GP, she was told there was a five-month waiting list for cognitive behavioural therapy.
Many sufferers are finding their own solutions. Eastham runs three times a week to relieve anxiety, and her panic attacks are less frequent now. Others I know have tried digital detoxes, meditation and mindfulness to some positive effect. And The Power of Now, a 1999 book by the “spiritual teacher” and author Eckhart Tolle, comes up again and again.
Fans of his blend of Buddhism and mysticism include Oprah, Annie Lennox and Paris Hilton. In his book he writes that, “Anxiety, stress and worry – all forms of fear – are caused by too much future and not enough present.” It may have been written five years before Facebook launched, eight years before iPhones were invented and 11 years before we could Instagram our every experience, but it could have been written about me and my generation.
If only we could put down our phones, and stop worrying about how we come across, maybe we could find a way to be truly present in the moment.
Click Here For More Articles

No comments:

Post a Comment