Why Is Anxiety On The Rise?

A significant chunk of the US population is struggling with anxiety, and rates are only trending up. Before COVID-19, anxiety was slowly rising, but rates quickly accelerated once the pandemic and associated prevention measures began. In 2019, eight percent of US adults showed anxiety symptoms—by October 2022, this had quadrupled to 32 percent.

 Although these rates among all ages are increasing, young adults from ages 18-29 are more likely to experience anxiety than their elders. According to a November survey from the CDC, 44.4 percent of Millennials and Gen Z between 18 to 29 showed symptoms of anxiety, compared to 23.7 percent of Baby Boomers between 60 and 69. Anxiety has become so common among younger Americans that the US Preventative Task Force recommended doctors screen all adults under 65 for it. This is not to say that older Americans do not experience anxiety—many do. That said, since anxiety rates tend to increase as age drops— understanding why the stress levels of Americans under age 65 are so high could be a good starting point to assess this growing phenomenon. 

 

Let’s start with Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980)

Roughly one-third of Gen Xers experience stress and anxiety. A survey by ValuePenguin found that Gen Xers’ leading stressors were money, work, and family issues. More specifically, as this generation approaches retirement, many worry about making enough to survive. On top of that, many Gen Xers juggle the demands of dependent children and aging parents in tandem, which both became tougher to support during the pandemic–one woman of the “sandwich generation” reported having only one hour (on a good day) to relax. Gen X is particularly at risk of caregiver burnout—especially women. Ada Calhoun, for instance, wrote a book about the stress of women in their forties that resonated with many facing the demands of school children and older parents while also approaching menopause.

Now for Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996)

Some of these factors, especially money, are also worrying Millennials, who are today between 26 and 41. About 44 percent of Millennials reported feeling stressed before the pandemic, though that percentage dropped eight points during the pandemic’s early days, which some speculate is partially due to greater flexibility with remote work and life slowing down a bit. Another leading source of anxiety and stress for this generation is money, especially debt. It’s easy to see why: in 2021, Millennials had an average of almost $90,000 in debt, mostly from student debt, auto loans, and other personal loans. Additionally, Millennials also graduated into the pandemic, also known as the “Great Recession,” and many faced unemployment

And then socially, this group also became the face of “Hustle Culture.” The New York Times referred to it as the grind mentality, which promotes working harder and faster. In this mindset, leisure time was not only discouraged, but actively disparaged. Though attitudes to work are changing, leaving the grind behind for many Millennials is easier said than taking a break: one Millennial who struggles with anxiety noted that working nonstop can prove especially frustrating for those that fail to reach their desired levels of professional success, which can cause feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. As a result, this generation is set to enter middle age more anxious than any other group before their time.

And then, Gen Z (born between 1996 and 2012)

Gen Z shows the highest rates of anxiety among US adults and has done so for some time. One 2018 study from the American Psychological Association (APA) found that more than 90 percent of Gen-Zers (who were then between 15 and 21 years old) reported experiencing an anxiety or stress symptom, compared to 74 percent for all adults. In addition, less than half of Gen Z adults described their mental health as very good or excellent, the lowest rate of any age group surveyed. At the time, critical drivers of this stress were thought to be heavy media exposure, especially to tragic events like gun violence in schools, which directly impacted many Gen Z students in the United States. Social media is also a factor, particularly for teenage girls, as it can contribute to feelings of inadequacy.

Additionally, Gen Z faces similar economic challenges as Millennials, like high student debt. And the pandemic may have only made things worse. Nearly fifty percent of Gen Z respondents said that their mental health suffered during the pandemic—the highest of any other generation. There are many reasons for this, including social isolation and the financial stress of graduating into a major economic downturn, which many Gen Zers did. High media exposure also didn’t help, as many researchers found that significant exposure to the news correlated with anxiety among younger people during the height of COVID. This generation’s rapid rise in anxiety contributed to the US surgeon general’s decision to issue an advisory highlighting the many difficulties the pandemic thrust upon young people.

One thing is clear—Americans are stressed out. 

While each generation faces its own challenges, these shared experiences of life affect every group: 1. Almost everyone is worried  about money. 2. It’s challenging to slow down in a world that champions “Hustle Culture.” 3. And frankly, there’s no time for anything anymore.

Even if anxiety isn’t going anywhere, that doesn’t mean we can’t strategize against it. While many of its drivers are macro–the precariousness of the economy, heavy media exposure–we can still try to mitigate our own anxiety and help those around us that also struggle with it.

Some tips to address anxiety include:

  • Consider professional support: You’re not alone in this. If therapy or professional help is an option for you, it’s worth considering–even if it means an hour out of your week. Cognitive behavioral therapy is thought to be particularly effective in treating anxiety.
  • Spend time with loved ones: Loneliness is found to correlate with and potentially augment anxiety. Confiding in loved ones can help alleviate anxious feelings and serve as a stress relief while also combating loneliness.
  • Exercise. Even a little amount of physical activity can help reduce stress by relaxing your muscles and releasing neurochemicals that can help quell anxiety.
  • Prioritize your health and well being. It’s tempting to put ourselves on the back burner–we want to skip sleep, exercise, and other things that generally improve our quality of life. However, these are all proven to help mitigate anxiety by putting us in the best mental space to tackle nervous and negative thoughts when they arise. It’s okay to look after yourself.
  • Think about what’s triggering your anxiety, and how those can be addressed. In other words, set boundaries when you have to. Think about what you’re taking on that you might not have to. Maybe you’ve taken on too many responsibilities at home, could you ask family members to help you out? It’s okay to say no to things, and it’s okay to not be able to do everything all the time. We’re only human, after all.

At the end of the day, many of us are stressed out and anxious. Though some level of stress is unavoidable in today’s world, it doesn’t have to define us, or rob our joy.

 

Rebecca Grenham

Rebecca Grenham

Rebecca Grenham is a writer based in the US. A good deal of her work touches on mental health and anxiety, and her essays have appeared in CH-VOID, Narcity Media, and other outlets.

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