The Anxiety Boom – Psychology Today

bigwavephoto / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Sun breaking through the clouds

Source: bigwavephoto / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Many researchers predicted that the social isolation and general fear of the unknown associated with the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic would exacerbate Gen Z’s already record-breaking levels of anxiety and depression. I predicted the opposite.

At the close of 2019, I’d been a college teacher for almost 20 years and was completely astounded by the starring role anxiety was playing in the American college experience.

Pre-pandemic anxiety levels in Gen Z were already sky-high.

Before the pandemic, educators were witnessing an all-time high of student essays about anxiety (commonly blamed on social media addiction), accommodation letters related to anxiety, doctors’ visits, counseling referrals, “mental health” absences, and even students dropping out to “take care of their mental health.” I’d written about how different these times were from my college days in the late 90s and how I was concerned about what would become of this whole generation of fragile, anxious not-quite adults who lacked the resilience to deal with daily life.

So when the pandemic hit in winter 2020, I saw an opportunity for Gen Z: They would realize they weren’t alone in their anxiety, since everyone on the planet was experiencing a huge collective panic attack. Out of nowhere, people were concerned on a mass scale with death, illness, unemployment, and isolation. It wasn’t an example of “misery loves company” but, rather, this is miserable for all of us.

Is anxiety even something one can have?

A particularly problematic phrase endemic to our times is “I have anxiety,” which is always followed by, “So I can’t do x.” But the sentiment behind “I have anxiety,” is that it’s something you can possess, vis-à-vis others who presumably do not have this experience. Anxiety did, prior to 2020, seem like something college students were proud to claim ownership of, their cross to bear, if you will.

In recent history, therapists and psychologists got on board with turning the very natural human feeling of anxiety into a diagnosis. It would be weird if they’d instead zeroed in on joy or regret. Then people might solemnly have to admit that they “have joy” or “have regret” and, with that cross to bear, be given certain accommodations around their abilities and productivity in school and the workplace. But among all the human feelings, anxiety was seized by the general public with such doggedness it probably surprised even the therapists who were “diagnosing” it and the pharmacists who were filling prescriptions to “treat” it.

In Spanish, “tengo hambre” means, literally, “I have hunger.” So we can conceptualize feelings this way, as possessing them. But feelings come and go. We eat and we’re no longer hungry. Someone might object: “But anxiety is different, I’m anxious all the time.” But are you? Are you feeling anxious while you sleep? While you read this post? While you’re doing whatever you do to assuage your anxiety? Those exceptions to feeling anxious peek through the clouds like the first hints of sunshine after a storm.

To say “I have anxiety” is to give it too much power and influence over who we are as human beings. Anxiety is a human emotion that visits all of us, to varying degrees and under different circumstances. But you don’t have it like you have brown hair or freckles, or a library card or car. It’s a feeling that, by the nature of feelings, you sometimes feel and sometimes don’t. All feelings are woven into the fabric of human nature. All of us, in turn, and at some times in our lives, experience joy, sorrow, anxiety, regret, and excitement. They are passing emotions, some more enjoyable than others, some destructive or all-consuming at times, but passing emotions nonetheless.

Eastern philosophy, and to some extent contemporary yoga and meditation studies, espouse that “you are not your thoughts” and urge us to recognize our thoughts and feelings as passing clouds. While I’m not one to espouse Eastern philosophy as I find it replete with confusions and contradictions, here it might be instructive. Why not accept that we feel anxiety, as all humans do, but not that we have it, as a condition, as a diagnosis, that needs to be treated and accommodated and managed with drugs?

Gen Z had less reason to worry during the pandemic than other age groups.

Though the data show that during the pandemic rates of anxiety and depression have risen in Gen Z, so have they in all age groups. Older people, most vulnerable to the Covid-19 virus, were most at risk for serious illness and death. All of a sudden they were facing the very real possibility of their own death and the death of their friends, life partners, or spouses. Gen Z didn’t have these fears, as their youth was their greatest advantage and rendered them most likely to fare well.

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Middle-aged people were all of sudden concerned with the very real possibility of losing their jobs, their income, possibly their homes and, if they were parents, what to do with their unvaccinated children who would possibly get sick at school but lose out on socialization if isolated at home. Gen Z, in general, didn’t face these concerns either, since they’re typically not at the career or parenthood stages of life yet.

But researchers were primed to worry most about Gen Z because they already had the highest levels of anxiety and depression pre-pandemic. They did have specific worries, like moving back home if they were away at college, learning how to learn on Zoom, worrying whether they’d graduate on time, wondering how to date in Covidworld, and being socially isolated. But, interestingly, most of these anxieties were shared by all age groups during the pandemic and were not unique to Gen Z.

As the pandemic dies down, can our obsession with anxiety die down too?

For all these reasons, I think that long-term, in hindsight, we’ll see that the extreme anxiety we all endured 2020-2022 (and beyond) was not enjoyable, but, just like angst for the Existentialists, it served a purpose: uniting human nature like nothing else in recent history has. We were very much “all in this together.”

The past two years, I’ve heard far fewer claims of students “having anxiety” and it’s such a welcome relief. I can’t speak for other educators, but I was definitely getting bored of hearing about anxiety. Maybe college students were boring themselves. I’m confident that post-pandemic we can find more interesting things to focus on.