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Generation Z's Worst Nightmare: A Real Reason to Panic

The COVID-19 crisis could be good for the most anxious generation in history.

For at least a decade now, psychologists, educators, and just about everyone has been trying to figure out why Generation Z'ers (those now in college) suffer the highest rates of anxiety and depression. It's weird because, while every generation has had its challenges and tragedies (and continues to have them...), Gen Z'ers seem particularly vulnerable to the pitfalls of life. Millennials thought they had it bad with steeper competition for post-college jobs and the skyrocketing cost of lifestyle staples, like houses and cars, which Boomers took for granted… but Gen Z'ers seem like they're suffering one, huge existential crisis together, anxiously trying to hold on to reality with the fingernails of their being. The source of their anxiety? Life.

I teach First-Year Writing & Rhetoric and asked my students a few months ago (pre-crisis) to write a short reflection on why, according to them, their generation suffered the highest rates of anxiety and depression when all generations before them have suffered war, substance abuse, peer pressure and bullying, competition for jobs, divorce, poverty, violence, malaise, chronic illness, etc. They were actively engaged in the debriefing classroom discussions the following week. One aspect I hadn't thought of, articulated by one of my students, is the fact that they were born right after 9/11—into a world of fear, uncertainty, cultural and religious bigotry, us-vs.-them mentality, and potential world war. The airports they know are not the airports I remember from pre-9/11 days when we left our shoes on, and family members could accompany us right up to the gate to wave bon voyage.

Some students noted that the diagnosis of mental illnesses has improved (to the point of over-diagnosis, some might argue), but far and away, the most popular response given had something to do with their addiction to social media. They suffer daily from FOMO (fear of missing out)—when they see friends in social media posts having fun at parties they weren't invited to. My female students especially wrote about the constant pressure to look a certain way based on what they see in social media, the constant comparison to others, the exhausting game of trying to keep up. I found myself accepting this social media theory because, honestly, it's the only thing Gen Z seems to have that we (Gen X) and other generations didn't have to deal with.

Enter the COVID-19 crisis. When I explained to my students one month ago that our classes would be moving online, they were crestfallen; their freshman year as they knew it was over. They were moving back home with their parents after a short taste of college freedom in the Wild West of Colorado. My first worry was: How will this whole crisis affect the already-most-anxious generation in human history?

Over the past month, I've thought a lot about this and come to maybe a strange conclusion that some readers no doubt won't like. I'm optimistic that maybe this global pandemic will ultimately wind up being a positive thing for Gen Z.

How could that be?

Prior to the pandemic, I was struck by the surprising fact that what a lot of my students seemed to be suffering from was, well, life.

Often, the most anxious students, who reveal unsolicited details about their diagnoses, medications, and history of therapy, seem to really be struggling with and in the depths of despair from fairly ho-hum, work-a-day kind of stuff—grades, head colds, arguments with boy/girlfriends, boredom—stuff that all of us have dealt with. It may seem insensitive of me to say, and that's OK, you can voice your opinion in the comments below, but often it seems to me these students have "diagnoses of life."

I've heard stories directly from my own students about how they're struggling to get out of bed, to get their academic work done, to make it through the weekend with their roommate out of town, to stay away from home one more month, and sometimes, bizarrely, to make it through their own life because they've gotten so wrapped up in the lives of others—be they friends or family members or loved ones. Before you think, oh, that sounds like compassion. No, that's not what I'm talking about here.

What I've seen is closer to what you might call "borrowed trouble." When people don't have enough drama in their own lives, so they adopt some from other people's lives, so they have plenty to go on, kind of like reserves. It's a weird behavioral trend, at least from where I'm standing because, when I was in college, taking on others' trauma as one's own wouldn't have even crossed our mind. And if it had, we wouldn't have wanted anything to do with it.

Just to substantiate what I'm suggesting here, consider that in those class discussions following the short writing exercise I had my students do, several of them agreed after one suggested it that there's a subtle peer pressure to have some sort of diagnosis, because everyone who is dealing with anxiety and depression has a built-in, automatic community, and people yearn for community, so people on the outside want those issues too. Don't blame me; my students told me this.

It's not that parents getting divorced or family members having eating disorders or friends getting hurt skiing are not things that can bring you down or even haunt you. It's that it used to be you had to get past them—you had no choice. Now there are so many security nets in place that there's almost this inertia to make sure you don't completely get past them. The mud is thicker. You get stuck in it. I believe society meant well in getting better at diagnosing and prescribing, I really do, but I also believe we overdid it, and now we're faced with a whole generation who, maybe, perhaps, doesn't really want to get past their problems (or other people's problems that they've adopted as their own), because there's safety in numbers, and people feel safe with other people like them. Misery loves company.

So, what will this global pandemic of illness and isolation and death with no clear end in sight and only the thinnest layer of good news if you really, really search for it to do to our most vulnerable generation? I think it might do them some good. How in the world could that be?

One common feature of anxiety is that you get very insular, wrapped up in your own head, trapped in your own body, and feel very much alone in that experience. Being forced to come to terms with the fact that there is indeed a much bigger world than you that extends beyond your little problems to a vast universe of things more interesting than your anxiety attacks is, oddly, reassuring. You realize you're just one little piece of something much bigger than yourself. This realization helps to put things in perspective. In short, it takes the focus off yourself and swivels the spotlight outward toward other humans, other living beings, the natural world, our larger home, and the universe itself.

Furthermore, when people are dying or getting really sick, people are losing loved ones, and healthy ones are losing jobs and worrying about the future—the near future of paying May's rent and the distant future (Do I want to bring children into this world?)—it forces us to realize there are problems bigger than how your body looks compared to someone in an Instagram picture. The fact that you're not good at statistics or that your girlfriend dumped you, which seemed like the end of the world last month, just doesn't matter in the big picture anymore. There are real and big problems in the world, many of which are excruciatingly near and present to us all right now, and if that doesn't put individual problems and worries into perspective, then nothing will.

Now perhaps more than ever, the cliché "life is short" comes into sharp relief. Live life well. Be happy. Be functional. Do good work. Let go of what drags you down into the mud. Let it go. Let other people's problems be other people's problems; don't adopt them as your own. Help where you can. Get outside your head and into the world (when we're allowed to again) and do some good work. Make other people smile. Help others achieve their goals.

What's the alternative? Gen Z not coming out of this crisis at all? Being too anxious to ever go outside again? I hope Gen Z'ers will be so sick of their phones and living online during quarantine that they'll step away from social media that they admit themselves is, quite literally, making them sick. Maybe they'll want to spend time with people. In-person. Making connections. Having real conversations about what's happening in the world and not what's happening on Instagram or Snapchat.

Maybe they'll realize we are all in this together—not just the pandemic, though that is a good and reassuring reminder—but life itself. Gen Z'ers have been living with chronic anxiety their whole lives, suffering panic attacks at life's every twist and turn, in essence, practicing for this very moment. Let's hope all that practice pays off.

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