Anxiety doesn’t need a cage. It needs a jungle gym.
According to the American Psychological Association, millennials report above average stress levels and government data indicates that they visit therapists at a higher rate than previous generations. There is factual evidence that proves that the world is a safer place than ever before. If we are better off, then why are our levels of anxiety increasing? You can almost hear an old man waving his walking stick around, yelling, “this generation is soft I tell you!” before running out of breath and having his wife Darlene bring him a cool lemonade to calm his wits.
For all the finger-wavers who believe that millennials are too soft, it is important not to discredit the generation’s experience. Millennials have grown up watching the very institutions that their predecessors relied on crumble in front of their eyes. This has caused a significant amount of skepticism and distrust towards the foundations that society has been built upon.
In the last twenty years, the institution of marriage has been challenged with higher divorce rates, destabilizing many families. Trust in law enforcement has been severely called into question. Every mainstream religion received their fair share of negative publicity. Banks gave away subprime loans like giving away Pixy Sticks, causing the 2008 recession. Kids started shooting up schools. Donald Trump from “The Apprentice” became the President of the United States and started a new reality TV show where he did his casting at the Capitol. Climate change is causing the North Pole to melt. Koala bears are running out of trees to hang on and to top it all off, the movie Contagion was brought to the theatre of life.
Historically, it took a journey across the desert, a voyage across the sea, or an unbelievably well-trained hawk with a note attached to its claw for people to receive information. Today, we receive notifications on our cellphones of breaking news and events in real time. Does anyone even know how to turn off Editor’s Picks?
There are a variety of reasons why millennials are more anxious than ever, but the rise of the nuclear family that was brought about by the Industrial Revolution could singlehandedly be the number one factor in increased levels of anxiety.
As metropolitan cities host greater levels of opportunity, people from other parts of the world leave behind their families and relocate to realize this opportunity. As people move farther away from their families and support systems, they have to fight harder to fend for themselves.
We have now moved away from the nuclear family to what David Brooks, a political and cultural commentator calls the Distressed family. In the extended family structure, if someone lost their job, a love one died, or a marriage fell apart, there were a multitude of others who could pick up the slack. Today, all responsibility falls on a few.
When it comes to child rearing, there is the popular African proverb: “It takes a village to raise a child.” In the West, there aren’t any “villages” raising children. Hopefully, there are two parents, a grandparent or two on the weekend, family friends who visit once every eight weeks and Becky from the local day care. God bless Becky.
From an evolutionary perspective, we have evolved collectively, and we need one another for love, connection, specialization and protection. There are evolutionary reasons why we lived in tribes, hunted collectively and raised children together. The reasons are as relevant today and can be demonstrated by our preference to meet strangers in crowded places, walk down quiet streets with friends. We feel safer together because we are safer together.
We can go faster on our own, but in order to create a life that is sustainable, focused on longevity and good health, we need strong support systems. It is unlikely that we will go back to plowing fields and squeezing udders…. So what can we do right now to reduce our levels of anxiety?
Here are two solutions.
The first solution is to pick up our phone and call someone we love, text someone we haven’t spoken to, write a letter, send an email, comment on a post or do something to expand our support system. When we do this, we inadvertently expand someone else’s support system as well. We all have people in our lives who were once important to us and who we still think of occasionally. We might not have spoken to them for some time, but we know that there is still a lot of untapped love there for both of us. Let them know you have been thinking about them. To know that we have a multitude of people in our lives who we can turn to is extremely reassuring and builds our resilience to take on unexpected challenges with more grace.
The second solution is trickier because we are fighting against an evolutionary trait. Our drive to survive has been deeply programmed in us over millions of years and anxiety has a played a pivotal role in our survival.
Here are some important questions to consider.
1. What if we have a finite supply of anxiety?
2. What if the amount of anxiety our bodies can produce today is the same amount as it was for our ancestors?
3. The world is safer, but what if the increased levels of safety actually limit our ability to exercise our natural stress response?
Perhaps this is the reason our anxiety manifests in unusual ways, often when there are no threats even present.
For now, we may have to settle to find playgrounds where our anxiety has a chance to exert itself. For many people, exercise is one way to send our bodies into survival mode that allows some of our anxiety to be released. This same principle is transferrable to creative endeavors or enterprises. If we take on a creative project, we risk being judged, criticized or having our work laughed at. If we want to start a business, we have to deal with the fear of potential failure or bankruptcy; but by doing so, we exert a portion of our anxiety. The good news is that we get to decide where we are willing to endure it.
Anxiety is so deeply connected to our physiology that only by years of practice and training can we learn to subdue it, but we cannot cage it. With all the meditation and green smoothies going around I am sure we will get there but we aren’t there yet. A quicker and more viable solution may be to give our anxiety a worthy avenue to express itself. If this is the case, then the path of least resistance, is the most anxiety-riddled path of all.