Bright young things? Inside generation Y

What is it really like to be part of Generation Y? Author Louise O’Neill on why anxiety has become the new ‘normal’ for twenty-somethings.

WHAT DO Youtube sensation Zoella, actresses Emma Stone and Amanda Seyfried, and Lena Dunham, creator of the hit HBO series Girls, have in common? All women have spoken honestly about their struggle with over-whelming anxiety.

So why has anxiety become the new ‘normal’ for Generation Y? Many experts believe that two of the main causes are the over- reliance on technology and the pressure of living in a world that offers too much choice. Reports suggest that we use our phones up to 10 hours a day and Claire Eastham, a British journalist who writes a blog about her anxiety called ‘We Are All Mad Here’ says , “the digital revolution has changed the world forever... But is such easy access to so much information a good thing? The pressure to be interesting has never been more paramount. For a person who is prone to over-thinking, it’s a playground of stress.”

Even being without one’s phone can cause a person stress with a 2014 study conducted by California State University finding that university students who were forced to sit quietly with no distractions and forbidden to use their phones became “significantly more anxious over time, even when they were aware their devices would be returned to them shortly”.

Claire Eastham also believes too much choice is a factor in the rise of anxiety amongst her generation, saying “I spend a lot of time worrying about what I am going to do with my life. Previous generations had choice taken out of their hands. If you are told what to do it takes the pressure away.”

She has a point. As the journalist Rachel Dove outlined in The Independent, there are now more than 200 varieties of milk available on Tesco online, and Levi’s sell 233 different types of jeans for women. It might sound self-indulgent to complain about but the psychologist Pieter Kruger has said: “From research we know that people with no choice are significantly more resilient because they can blame life or other people when they make a wrong decision. But if you make a wrong decision having had a range of choice, you have no one to blame but yourself. We become much more obsessive because we want to make the right decision every time.”

There are growing fears about an over-reliance on anti-anxiety medications in Ireland and it is clear that for many sufferers of anxiety a change in lifestyle such as practicing mindfulness, exercising more regularly, or going to see a Cognitive Behavioural therapist could very well result in a decreased severity of symptoms.

However, we must be careful not to underestimate how dehabilitating anxiety disorders can be. Eastham describes her anxiety as having ‘liquid terror’ injected into her veins, and Claire Hennessy, a writer from Dublin, told the Irish Examiner that people often say to her that “‘everyone gets stressed/nervous’ — of course they do, but it’s like saying ‘everyone hurts sometimes’ to someone who’s just broken their neck. We need to acknowledge the difference between having a few nerves and being physically unable to leave the house because you can’t stop crying.”

Bright young things? Inside generation Y

Anxiety disorders, a category of mental disorders characterised by feelings of extreme fear and anxiety, have only been properly accepted as a medical condition within the last 30 years, but they are not exactly a new phenomenon. In 1926, Freud was writing about issues related to anxiety, trying to comprehend the causes of ‘shell shock’ that was plaguing so many men returning from the First World War; the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard published The Concept of Anxiety in 1844, and symptoms of anxiety and ‘hysteria’ can be found in the Ebers Papyrus, an Egyptian medical document dating to about 1550BC.

However, there does seem to be a marked increase in the amount of people presenting with anxiety disorders in recent years. In the US, anxiety disorders are the third most common mental health issue after depression and alcoholism, and the British charity YouthNet reports that nearly a third of young women and one in 10 young men suffer from panic attacks.

The figures show something similar here in Ireland. Social Anxiety Ireland estimates that 13.7 per cent of Irish adults suffer from Social Anxiety Disorder, and it is thought one in nearly eight Irish people will suffer from sort of anxiety disorder in their life, with women being 60 per centmore likely to develop the condition. This is corroborated by pharmaceutical statistics, with the Irish Examiner reporting almost 2.3 million prescriptions were written for anxiety and depression drugs in 2012 and at least 500,000 Irish people take anti-anxiety medication or antidepressants, a marked increase from 2011 and 2010.

Claire Hennessy is one of those who is on medication. “It’s primarily for depression,” she says, “but the difference it has made to my anxiety is unreal. Before I started taking medication, anxiety would manifest itself through panic over everyday things — someone doesn’t answer their phone so clearly they’ve been in a horrible car crash. Sharp words from someone? I’ve done something appalling and they hate me. Everything loomed larger. Now, upset and distress tends to be in proportion to situations. My brain doesn’t immediately categorise every tiny flicker as a potential danger.”

We have a responsibility to acknowledge that there is a real difference between the uneasiness that is caused by FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) and someone who has a legitimate mental health disorder. Katie Grant, a journalist from the UK, who was diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder eight years ago, told the Irish Examiner: “I think that if there isn’t a physical manifestation of the problem that is immediately obvious to the casual observer, then the perception is that there isn’t anything really wrong. The person who suffers from anxiety just needs to stop worrying, stop obsessing and be grateful there isn’t anything really wrong with them. I can’t emphasise how unhelpful this is. Without proper understanding and appropriate treatment, anxiety can take over a person’s life, preventing them from eating, sleeping and working.”

When asked if she believed that anxiety is something specific to Generation Y, Grant said, “It is quite reductive to suggest that anxiety disorders are some kind of modern phenomenon that can be explained away by the advent of the internet, social media and modern technology. On the one hand, yes, the negative thoughts and feelings that can result from spending excessive amounts of time online projecting an inauthentic image can definitely cause unhappiness and are an ideal breeding ground for insecurities to flourish in people of any age — particularly millennials. But I don’t believe social media, being part of Generation Y and having so much choice at your fingertips is the CAUSE of the anxiety. Perhaps it appears that more members of Generation Y than previous generations are suffering from mental health problems but actually I think it is because slowly the stigma surrounding mental illness is diminishing, and people are more able to be honest about their conditions than their parents and grandparents were. “

Nicky Libetter, the CEO of Anxiety UK, believes that social media can even be a useful tool for people to connect with other sufferers. “Social media has made massive inroads in helping those who have felt isolated and on the margins of society feel connected. Indeed before Twitter and Facebook people living with anxiety would’ve had to join a formal support group or organisation,” he says. “The avenues to connect with others and share information were much more limited (before).”

While the stigma surrounding mental illness may be diminishing, it would appear that there is still much work to be done to promote understanding of an issue that affects so many.


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