The age of anxiety

Alan White New

Alan White

“For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” – William Shakespeare (Hamlet)

More and more I seem to be meeting young people struggling with anxiety. I am encountering debilitating levels of stress and worry in many people. So much so that the suffering is having an effect on many people’s ability to function normally. So many young people today have low self-esteem, are anxious about the future and see themselves as being not good enough.

In my opinion, one of the biggest reasons that there is such a huge increase in anxiety today is that many of us, especially young people, are living our lives under the constant scrutiny of a large audience. Through social media and on-demand entertainment, our minds are constantly switched on. We are also constantly measuring our self-worth against what we perceive the lifestyles of others to be. Very few people post pictures or comments about the ordinary mundane parts of their lives. We only post things showing ourselves in the best possible light, dressed in our best clothes, out at parties or events and with other people.

For young people it can be difficult to live up to this perceived lifestyle that others portray, even though it’s not reality. Nonetheless, many people try to constantly live to an impossible standard, even if it’s not what they want to do. This can have a very negative effect and increases anxiety.

For example, I recently watched a clip of Kim Kardashian, giving a “masterclass” on how to take the perfect selfie. Afterwards I was left feeling extremely worried that this is what young people are trying to conform to, and that this is becoming the “new normal”. The advice given was to spend a few hours getting ready, at this point, I was already in shock. Then take the time to find the perfect pose, avoiding angles that highlight any physical “flaws”, at this point I could feel the anger rising.

The next step is to take 300 to 400 selfies ????? (I swear I actually heard this). The final step was to spend another few hours trying to select the right photo, apply the correct filter etc. before posting your picture. So many young people think that this is normal behaviour.

Anxiety and stress are closely linked and they are both interrelated. In fact, I have written in the past, about the importance of some stress in our lives to motivate us to do the things we need to do. Anxiety is also a normal feeling that can help us perform at our best and also act as a warning to us that something isn’t right and we need to be cautious.

However when anxiety is not managed it can quickly become overwhelming and debilitating for someone and they can no longer cope with the normal demands of life. When I speak to people overcome with anxiety, the common theme that I find, is they have no sense of control over their own lives. They do not feel empowered or capable of handling the inevitable challenges that life throws at us, and therefore spend a lot of time and energy ruminating and catastrophizing future events.

As the quote at the beginning suggests, it is a person’s perception and thoughts that have a bigger impact on their level of anxiety and ability to cope, than any other factor. Many people, especially young people get caught in a negative loop of thought, where they tell themselves repeatedly, every day, that they are not capable and that therefore, bad things are bound to happen.

To help someone who is anxious all the time, I believe that it is important to highlight the relationship between stress and thoughts. What can begin as a small or healthy stressor can quickly become overwhelming for someone if they begin to think they can’t cope with whatever the stress is – for example an upcoming interview, exam or social event. I have found that by helping someone become aware of their anxiety triggers, such as allowing ordinary stress become an all-consuming negative thought pattern, they can quickly learn when they need to take action to reduce their level of worry.

Anyone can help someone who is feeling anxious. Knowing the pressure that young people are experiencing like in the “Kardashian example” it’s important to remind them of what is real, what is fake, and that it’s not healthy to obsess in this way. Try not to feed someone’s anxiety by joining in with the drama or narrative of their thought pattern. This will only confirm their perspective and increase their anxiety pattern.

Acknowledge what the person is feeling, but remain calm. This shows that you are accepting of them, but you are also modelling a behaviour that they are searching for. Above all else, listen to their concerns. Allowing people to say what they are thinking will, a lot of the time, give that someone the space to look at things differently and find new ways to manage their anxiety.

Managing anxiety is an important skill for everyone to develop. It’s getting more difficult in the anxious world we now live in, but the hope as always, is to remain connected to friends and family and by encouraging this, we care enough to talk!

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