Why Do We Feel More Anxiety Now Than Ever Before, and What Can We Do About It?

Millennials are often described as, sometimes even mocked for experiencing a lot of feelings, especially anxiety. That, however, isn’t the full truth. In reality, people across the age spectrum are feeling more anxiety now than they ever have in the past, and the trend is especially apparent in younger Americans.

According to the American Psychological Association, anxiety is an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure. Its frequent companion is depression, but anxiety disorders, where that feeling of tension persists over the long term, can be overlooked exactly because anxiety is so universal. Its ubiquity is actually by evolutionary design, according to Philip Kendall, director of the Child and Adolescent Anxiety Disorders Clinic at Temple University in Philadelphia. Anxiety in the right doses serves the purpose of helping us detect and avoid danger.

Identifying trends like changes in anxiety over time takes the patient work of conducting longitudinal studies that researchers hope bear massive long-term returns. The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) is the result of one such longitudinal study, where high school and college students have been surveyed on a range of variables consistently since the 1930s. This rich collection of data yielded great returns in 2009, when Jean M. Twenge published a paper that made the clear connection between higher levels of anxiety and younger, more recent cohorts in the data set. In other words, anxiety levels have steadily increased over the years.

Twenge attributes this trend to factors related to “modern life.” In particular, she theorizes that society’s emphasis on freedom and convenience makes it difficult to form meaningful connections with communities and even within families. The result is that we all live in greater isolation than ever before. Moreover, our values have changed, such that success is increasingly defined by superficial markers like money and fame. In her book iGen, Twenge makes the connection between these social trends, the unhappiness resulting from them, and technology. She believes that “the use of social media and smartphones look culpable for the increase in teen mental-health issues.” Social media haters, triumph in your ironic I-told-you-so posts.

It’s probably safe to say that technology is here to stay. So how do we preserve our mental health and control our anxiety levels in an increasingly digital existence?

Mindfulness meditation has received attention over the last few years, and with good reason, according to researchers at Harvard. “People with anxiety have a problem dealing with distracting thoughts that have too much power,” says Dr. Elizabeth Hoge. “They can’t distinguish between a problem-solving thought and a nagging worry that has no benefit.” A meditation practice may help clear those distracting thoughts.

CBD (cannabidiol), one of the primary compounds found in cannabis, is also thought to be effective in reducing anxiety. “I think there’s good evidence to suggest that CBD could be an effective treatment of anxiety and addiction” and other disorders, says Dr. Esther Blessing, a psychiatrist and researcher at New York University, in a conversation with NPR. It isn’t psychoactive, which means that it won’t get you high, and it’s relatively widely available as a plant-based remedy.

In physical fitness, some people can motivate themselves, and others need a trainer. The same is true of mental health, where you may consider seeing a specialist for cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which has been shown to help with a range of anxiety disorders. It provides techniques for managing stress and breaking the patterns of thought that lead to anxiety.

And if social media and technology are responsible for anxiety, doesn’t it make sense to carve out more time for other things? Easier said than done, we know, but think about the hours you spend in Instagram rabbit holes looking at the meals other people ate, and instead, use that time to go out and grab a bite with a friend. Yes, IRL.

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