Is this really the Age of Anxiety? Maybe it is. On the Trinity Broadcasting Network a few days ago, former pastor and Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee opened his most recent episode by saying if former president Trump loses the 2024 election because of the many indictments grand juries have handed down concerning his behavior, “it is going to be the last American election that will be decided by ballots rather than bullets.” That makes me anxious!
Maybe the “spirit of the air” right now is named Anxiety and the media spreads it like a virus. It seems like therapists, teachers, parents and all sorts of authorities are moving with this zeitgeist. They may being seeing and naming anxiety where little is actually present. They might proactively drug anxious-looking behavior when it is not really necessary. They might be creating the atmosphere they fear by overdefending against it.
Even though there is plenty to be anxious about right now, maybe our better-therapized society is only slightly more anxious than usual. Maybe we are just more aware and more prepared to talk about how we feel.
Are you monitoring your anxiety?
A junior college professor in Utah starts his class each day by having students open up a Canvas page where they give themselves an anonymous mental health rating. The poll is a 10-point scale—modeled loosely after health care’s 10-point pain scale—with a 10 being the best and one being “I’m just pressing buttons today.”
The professor has a conviction. He says, “At the end of the day, the student who is coming out of the pandemic and coming back to our institutions just wants to know they matter, just wants to know that somebody knows their name and just wants to know that somebody will genuinely ask them how they’re doing.” He sounds like a great professor to have.
It also sounds like he is training his students to monitor and rate their anxiety (and everything else) every day. His attempt to pay attention might backfire. Back in the 2010’s it became popular to attend to “key performance indicators.” The saying goes “What gets measured gets done.” Managers wanted regular measurement and reporting to keep workers focused. The use of the idea expanded. For instance, a client who is successful in business took tracking indicators to heart. He had charts to rate his anxiety from 1-10 every day. Once he had a solid month of no “over 3 days” and found it miraculous. I was ambivalent about his technique, but I rejoiced in his improvement. He needed to wean himself from the anxiety indicators and start measuring positive things until he could stop measuring so much altogether.
Do we all have a report due?
As school gets rolling it is good to know that someone is attending to the possible epidemic of anxiety infecting the student body. I’m not sure all those authority figures have good solutions to the problems, but at least people are being inspected. One survey in 2021 reported 72% of female students and 51% of male students reported feeling overwhelming anxiety. 59%/48% reported feeling things were hopeless. Those are astounding percentages! I meet those people in my office and online. It does seem like the overwhelm is making it hard to settle down these days.
But it is possible that some of these statistics are being created by survey makers who imply you might be out of the mainstream if you aren’t anxious or hopeless. One inspector, Vicki Phillips, pushed back on Jonathan Haidt’s criticism of Gen Z stats. He called the generation “too soft” and “coddled.” As a result, he said they were unable to stand up to the challenges they face. On the contrary, Phillips says, “Gen Z is drinking less, learning more, and embracing a spirit of global agency and impact that prior generations could not even imagine. Which raises the question: what were later Boomers and Gen-Xers of Haidt’s cohort doing when they were 15, 16 and 17?” I think it makes a lot of sense to assume, like she does, the younger generation reports a higher percentage of anxiety than previous generations because they recognize and admit they have mental health issues.
They tell you about their mental health issues on TikTok. I am not much of a TikTok user. I deleted it because it soaked up so much time and offered so much misinformation. But I took a cursory look to see what creators were saying about anxiety. They are admitting it. There is a lot of mental health tok to find! I especially appreciated the young man who made a small song about his anxiety and the what ifs.
It is always time for development
Jumping into the argument the media is having about mental health can be confusing. Experiencing what the social media producers share about their health can be discouraging. Therapists could be swayed by it all to assume that most people entering therapy fit the stereotypes being passed around about whole generations. We could unwittingly conform the clients to an untested fad, to the latest temporary solution, or to a medical solution that promises more than it delivers (as this TikTokker reported).
Therapy clients are likely to resemble the general ways of humanity and the trends of the zeitgeist, of course. There may even be “best practices” that apply to them. But rather than assisting them to acclimate to the present atmosphere, or just teaching them to cope better, we all could help one another to be conformed less and enabled to form more. How my therapist sees me can shape me. A teacher’s survey also instructs as it collects info. A parent’s lens can tell a child how to view themselves. Love discerns the best in someone and nurtures it.
Each of us is on a unique journey. It is not singular, since we are in relationships with other people and with God, and those relationships and systems shape us. But in the therapy dyad, especially, we are given a unique chance to explore our own story, experience deeper attention, and make actionable decisions and goals. Teachers, relatives and spouses can all give similar attention.
It may be an age of anxiety, but each of us comes of age into whatever developmental stage we are entering in our own time and way. No matter what is happening, it is hard to keep us from growing. It is a privilege to witness, affirm and encourage healthy development. And if things aren’t moving along as desired, it is an even deeper privilege to come alongside with hope. If what gets measured gets done, let’s measure our love.