There is little doubt that we are living in an “Age of Anxiety,” maybe even the “Age of Anxiety.” As adults who work with students, we are not strangers to stressed out, maxed out and over-committed teenagers. Many adults are shaking their heads, asking, “What happened?” and “Why are students so stressed out?” Some of us feel as though we are on the anxiety train alongside them.
Anxiety rates are higher than they have ever been, even higher than during WWII and The Great Depression (turnaroundanxiety.com), but what is the cause? In part, cultural shifts, attitudes about work, achievement and success all contribute.
First, it’s important to understand that everyone feels stressed at some point. There are good stressors in our lives; such as getting a new job or promotion, beginning a new relationship, getting into college or buying a new home. All wonderful things, but they bring a certain amount of stress to our lives. Most of us speak about the negative stressors in our lives such as a death of a loved one, poor grades, getting cut from the team, getting fired or laid off from a job or being denied college admission. You get the picture. How does anxiety differ from everyday stress?
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is, in clinical terms, when worry, nervousness, unease, dread, agitation and irritability, fear, tension, disquiet and panic are prevalent…for a significant amount of time depending on the type of anxiety. Anxiety goes beyond “being stressed out.” Right now, Anxiety is the most common mental health issue in our country. In fact, it’s estimated that upwards of 25% of teenagers have a diagnosed anxiety disorder (elementsbehaviorualhealth.org).
How are our bodies meant to manage and cope with stress?
The body has a nervous system with two parts: the Parasympathetic System and the Sympathetic System. The Parasympathetic System is designed to help with general functions and control our body’s rest and digest responses. It helps us to restore our body to a state of calm. The Sympathetic System helps our body to mobilize when it feels under attack. This is why most of us are familiar with the terminology, “fight or flight.” When our body has to mobilize against stressors it shuts down all the non-necessary functions that are not critical.
What does all this mean? This is why students tell you, “my head hurts,” “my stomach aches,” “I’m tired all the time,” “I feel on edge,” “I can’t sleep” and more. Their systems can’t manage the attack they are under. Many of us, in the helping professions, have been noticing the increase in these feelings and statements from our students.
How did we get here?
You can read a large number of research articles, on the “how we got here” question, but here are my observations as a licensed professional counselor and youth leader. We live in a society that is based on the Puritan work ethic, where work is idolized and where being idle, is said to lead to bad things. We also live in a society that lauds the motto: Work Hard, Play Hard. Why does everything need to be hard? Does that make it more meaningful?
Western culture values doing over being.
What is the first question you ask someone after meeting them? What do you do for a living? We have an immediate need to classify and categorize people by the work they do; instead of seeing an individual for who they are, by their character and interests. How many conversations have you encountered that involved, the listing of all the things people did that day? It seems as if there is an understood and implicit contest between people to see who has done more work/things/events or even who is the most stressed. After we have done all the things, we talk about the impact it has had on us. We go on and on about how tired we are, how much coffee we needed to get through the day, how little sleep we had the night before, and how successfully we soldiered on throughout the next day. We wear these statements as badges of honor for all to see.
Parents of students in the Millennial Generation really changed the student landscape. Millennial parents really wanted to give their children all the things and all the opportunities. They also worked really hard to make sure that their children knew that they were special and cared for. How that message translated was through actions, getting their children involved in multiple programs and events. Suddenly, programs, events, sports were not just for the fun of it, or for simple enjoyment; but, rather part of the success and achievement ladder. Our motivations began to change, often students were pressured to be involved, to participate in order to achieve or receive recognition. Play became a job. Play became another box to check, a line to add to the resume. Students became hyper-conditioned to extrinsic motivators, to do for the sake of an outcome or the potential of one. Students have exceptionally full plates, which has led to increased stress and anxiety.
Change indicators in popular culture
On the bestseller lists and in the art world, over of the last few years, we have seen indicators in popular culture telling us to slow down and to focus on being rather than doing. In 2010, Marina Abramovic, a Yugoslav-born artist, was featured at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Her performance installation was called, “The Artist is Present.” The performance was simply Marina in a bare room, sitting at a table with two chairs across from one another. Museum patrons and art lovers, lined up for hours, for the opportunity to sit across from her in silence. As each person sat with Marina, they said nothing, but rather existed together in silence and looked each other in the eye. It has been reported that many people sat with her and cried. Marina’s work exemplifies our longing for full, meaningful connection, demonstrated our demand for attention as well as being present without distraction. Marina provided a much-needed non-anxious presence, in this modern world of anxiety.
Our society seems to be trying to shift us back in time to when we were less anxious and our lives were simpler. A few examples in popular literature with this message are Simplifying Life, Present over Perfect, The Life-Changing Magic of Tiding Up, Between Breaths, Becoming Minimalists, Notes from a Blue Bike: The Art of Living Intentionally. Clearly, we need to be told how to be less stressed.
Edwin Friedman, a Jewish Rabbi and Family Therapist, coined the well-known term, “non-anxious presence.” The term refers to one who provides a confident, calm, poised focus, that leaves others with a relaxed energy.
Our students need a non-anxious presence in their hectic, chaotic, achievement and success driven lives. In her most recent book, Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert talks about creativity and fear. During promotion of the book, she interviewed Rob Bell on his podcast (The RobCast, Episode 100), and discussed how fear is at play in all our lives. She explored how fear doesn’t get to be the driver of the car, but that it can sit in the back seat. What a great analogy for how stress lives in our lives. Stress can’t be the driver of our lives, but we acknowledge that we do take it around town for a drive. So, how can we (as youth workers) be an essential, non-fearful and non-anxious presence in the lives of our students?
Providing a Non-Anxious Presence
Students are stressed! Stress is embedded in our culture, but cultural shifts may be bringing us back to a time of simplicity and less anxiety. So, what can we do, right now? As a leader, remain calm. Student stress isn’t your stress. Parent stress isn’t your stress. It’s important to differentiate yourself from the stress and anxiety of others. When we take on the stress of our students and parents, we perpetuate the cycle of anxiety. You don’t have to do everything, and you don’t have to be all things to your people. That’s not your job, that’s God’s job. When you model this for your students and their families you become the calming solace they seek. You can acknowledge the world is hectic and stressful, but there are ways of scaling back and enjoying the world too.
How can I help my students?
1. Empower your students to find time to play and relax, simply for the sake of enjoyment and rest.
True Sabbath. When I plan retreats, I incorporate downtime. I educate my students that they need time to chill, connect with their friends, be with their own thoughts, take a nap, read a book, etc. I regularly use social media with images of myself reading a book, hiking in nature or playing a game. I’m modeling for them how they can just be and truly relax. You are part of the cultural shift.
2. Scale back where you can.
Take things off your own schedule and then tell the story of how this has impacted your own life. I tell families, we have a rule at my house, our child does one activity, of her choosing, at a time. We don’t do everything. Live the lesson, let your actions match your words. It’s okay to say no, and decline an offer, event or activity.
3. Stop comparing.
Comparison is the thief of joy. Social Media is a major culprit. If you spend all your time looking to what others are doing, or what they have, you’ll never have enough and you’ll never be enough. My colleague and I have a saying, “You do you and I’ll do me.” No one can do you, the way you can. That’s God’s gift to you.
4. Be present.
Wherever you go, be all there. Do the thing you are meant to do.
5. Talk about your feelings (when and as appropriate).
Model healthy communication and encourage parents to do the same with their students. This is such an important life skill and integral to managing stressors.
In 2016, East Carolina University (ECU) launched an “Adulting Program” to help teach students skills in Emotional Resiliency. The Counseling Center at ECU, has been flooded with students riddled with anxiety and stress, unable to cope. This new program encourages the “Recognition of feelings, Insight and Openness or RIO — to teach students self-talk, journaling, mindfulness and other cognitive-affective stress management techniques”.
6. Live with intention.
Stop. Think. Listen. Act. Who are you, what are you doing and why are you doing it? Living a happy, healthy life is a goal for most of us. Take a time out, think about your purpose, pray about your calling and vocation, get input and feedback, then make decisions and move into action as appropriate. Encourage this practice to your students.
Laura Boisvert Boyd is a Licensed Professional Counselor, who has worked in student development in high education, private counseling practice and in youth ministry for eighteen years. She is currently on staff at White Memorial Presbyterian Church, in Raleigh, NC as their Director of High School and College Ministry. She is active on Instragram @wmpc_hs_youth and Facebook.