TERRY PRONE: We are all barely coping, just hanging on by the skin of our teeth

If you tell me that you’re comfortable in your own skin, I will make affirmative noises. But, secretly, I will be looking at you sideways. 

I mean, come on, it’s a weird claim to make. Popular, though. You only have to look at the RTÉ Guide. It buys into “skin ownership”. At least twice in the last couple of months, they’ve put captions on their front cover, announcing that some star or other is now happy in their own skin. Every time it happens, I look at the pictures of the star so described, wondering whose skin they occupied up to now. And how did the owner of the other skin manage without the human saran wrap that keeps their innards from falling all over the floor? Did they, in turn, borrow a third person’s skin? Is a kind of skin relay race going on, where if you’re touched by a baton, you have to hand over your epidermis and go rent one, until you get the original, returned by its borrower?

Getting in and out of skin, your own or somebody else’s, worries me, too, because this is not like struggling into a wet suit. This is a tight, form-fitting yoke, with annoying details like fingers, which have to be covered fairly precisely. So it’s great to have the singer, Cheryl, to explain how it’s done. She seems to have done a skin swap at the onset of motherhood, perhaps because she didn’t like much about pregnancy.

But, now, she says, she feels more relaxed. In fact, she goes further. “I feel I’ve sat into my own skin,” is how she puts it. So that’s how you do it. You sit into your own skin when it comes back to you, after you have lent it to someone else, and then you feel completely comfortable in it.

We are all barely coping, just hanging on by the skin of our teeth

We might argue with the phraseology, but it’s the opposite to being comfortable in one’s own skin that we need to discuss. The opposite may be acute anxiety. There’s a case to be made that an epidemic of anxiety is being suffered by young people, particularly millennials. It’s a quiet epidemic, because many sufferers simply stay at home in silence, until or unless they find a way to cope with the crippling symptoms of anxiety. Within the last couple of weeks, the daughter of two famous Irish people told a story of misery and isolation caused by anxiety, which eventually ebbed when she took up kickboxing.

In the quite recent past, the anxious ones in the developed world were the older generation. Study after study revealed that people in their sixties and seventies were convinced that if they left the safe haven of their homes, they would more or less instantly become victims of crime or traffic carnage. Their fear was out of kilter with the facts, and did not match the fears of any other generation. Psychologists, examining the statistics, suggested that the reason the “shut-ins” were fearful of real life was because, well, they were shut-ins: Their information about life outside their home tended to come from TV and radio, which necessarily cover bad news.

A constant, daily consumption of bad news, it was suggested, will inevitably persuade an older person that the outside world is full of venom, threat, and danger, directed at them, personally.

Interestingly, this now seems to have been turned on its head, with more and more people in their teens and twenties confessing to major anxiety.

One has to wonder if the same principle applies — if the reason they are so fearful is because they draw their notion of the world from social media, rather than from reality.

Writer Stefanie Preissner, whose bestselling book, Why Can’t Everything Just Stay the Same? might not be all about anxiety, but does deal extensively with the problem, did away with her presence on Facebook, because she perceived it to be contributing to her worries.

“In the days leading up to deleting my Facebook Account,” she writes, “I paid particular attention to the types of comments that were popping up on my timeline. There is no one, particular person, or one particular comment that sent me over the edge — it was just the pattern of unhappiness and discontent that was being delivered to me every moment that I felt I could do without.”

In rhyme, she sums it all up:

<ul>

“My newsfeed filling with angry words from angry heads

Written with angry fingers in angry beds.

Sitting on couches, couched in inertia,

Sit back and complain that they’ve all deserted you.

Everyone says ‘NO’ in Helvetica Bold,

No to Leo, No to Donald, No to tax on household.

They can’t do simple maths like long division

But they have the solution to direct provision…”

</ul>

The massive increase in anxiety suffered by younger people is being seen in America, also, with, according to the New York Times, “a glut of anxious, overwhelmed students.” American studies verify that third level-educational institutions are witnessing a substantial increase in the numbers of teenagers and post-teens who experience anxiety at a level beyond their coping skills. In fact, anxiety is currently the most common mental-health disorder in the United States.

Anxiety seems to most afflict hardworking, perfectionist kids, rather than those who might be suspected of expressing future worries as a way of getting off homework.

In therapy, these bright, hardworking worriers describe a relentless logic to their terrors, not unlike the circling of water going down a drain. They’re anxious about a particular bit of homework they have to do.

This leads to a conviction they’ll do it badly. That, in turn, makes them believe they will fail their final exam. That failure will prevent them from going to university, thus putting the tin hat on all their hopes and dreams and wrecking their relationships with their parents and siblings.

Americans who have studied the surge in anxiety say it isn’t caused by helicopter parents. They say that might have been true in the past, whereas, now, teenagers have internalised all of the punishing fears that paralyse them.

It’s going to take a lot of social-media abstinence and kick-boxing before the anxiety sufferers get comfortable in their own skins.

It’s a quiet epidemic, because sufferers simply stay at home in silence, until they find a way to cope


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