The Young and The Anxious

Author: Yugal SehgalOriginally published on July 12, 2020

What do you do when you're anxious? Do you look for solitude, or reach out to someone close? Is it your personal life that overwhelms you? Your professional? Both? Does it often show up with a recurrent thought? Anxiety comes in all shapes and sizes. There’s no one size fits all definition to it. From a simple nervous reaction to a complex web of insidious thoughts — and everything in between — its range is quite expansive, which can be mentally expensive for many of us.

With the currently raging COVID-19 crisis, rising security tensions among some (super)powerful countries, increasing suicide and death shockers, and ever more bad news every day, you’ll be a rare find if you aren’t anxious. That, coupled with our individual anxieties in life seems to be worsening our lives by the day. At a time when the future looks different every week and there’s little that you can realistically control, it’s natural to be anxious.

This is particularly true for those of us who have barely stepped foot into adulthood and life seems to have thrown a special curveball at us. Generation Z appears to be on one long journey of tough discoveries.

When asked about how anxiety takes hold, here’s what Aditya, a 20-year-old undergraduate student, had to say, “When I don’t have control on a situation — or its outcome is really unpredictable — that’s where anxiety starts taking over. This is followed by a huge dose of overthinking, which to a certain extent can be healthy, but when you take it to the next level it can be disastrous because once you board that train of thought, you never know what station you’re getting off, or if at all you are.”

A cartoon illustration by the author. © Yugal Sehgal

This, he believes, has only been exacerbated during the COVID-19 crisis and the ensuing lockdown. He added, “Things are pretty messed up in the lockdown, everyone is facing an emotional breakdown in some way because where we used to be relatively occupied before this, whether through classes, with friends, or at work, now we have more free time on our hands and not a lot of productive ways to fill it, so we end up indulging in mindless consumption of content, endless scrolling on social media, overthinking, and all other kinds of non-productive ways to kill time. The cycle goes on and the resulting guilt makes things worse.”

In a small social media poll I conducted to gauge what makes us more anxious — our personal lives or our professional — 55% of the respondents voted for the former. Now, admittedly this does NOT provide an accurate (or full) picture because of the insignificant poll size, but the results seem to ring true for many of us. When the line between them has blurred and both have overlapped each other, particularly during lockdown as many are forced to work/study from home, it’s difficult to tell where personal ends and professional begins. And when it comes to causing anxiety, both are often toe to toe.

“In our professional lives we want to be valued, but in our personal lives, we not just want to be valued, we also want to be loved.” says Divya, a post graduate student.

Two huge factors that continue to make our personal lives deluge with anxiety are lack of meaningful relationships and loneliness, which has been shown to be connected with increased rates of heart disease, high blood pressure, dementia and even depression. And it doesn’t matter how many social connections you have, if the relationships aren’t meaningful, you continue to feel lonely. Life can then easily become a solitary and purposeless battle. What’s scarier is how this can make a person increasingly stoic and detached, which can intensify the feelings even more.

Add to that deadly mix prevalent academic challenges like exam uncertainty and career conundrums, or workplace challenges like work overload, salary cuts and lay-off fears, not to mention the persistent uncertainty associated with COVID-19 and you’re looking at a mind that is not only fighting anxiety on multiple fronts, but also beginning to implode because of it.

A cartoon illustration by the author. © Yugal Sehgal

While there’s no way to entirely kick anxiety out of our lives for good (it's an evolutionary phenomenon after all), there are ways to not just loosen its grip on you, but also to grow through it. Here’s five of them:

Label your feelings and address them: When we’re anxious or stressed, we are consumed by a mixture of feelings and overcome with a number of emotions, which often leads to ambiguity. Until you recognize those feelings, you can’t begin to address them. Knowing that you feel “powerless” or “numb”, rather than “sad” (which is a broad and encompassing feeling), can make a huge difference in how you perceive your state of mind and how you process it. Use this Feelings Wheel to gauge your emotions and narrow the list down to focus on those that affect you most. Ask yourself why you might be feeling those feelings and be realistic with your answers. It may not make your problems any less significant, but it will surely change their emotional effects on you.

Make peace with uncertainty: Many things in life are random and there’s little we can do to realistically control them. Worrying about those things magnifies the uncertainty associated with them. Normally, there is a systemic increase in uncertainty as we move along the path in life, from school (rigid) to university (more freedom and choices within a structure) to the workplace (no future guarantees), which can be a tough pill to swallow. Trying to impose a structure on essentially uncontrollable events in life can leave us exhausted and stressed. Shifting your focus to activities inside your zone of control like your thoughts, actions, and expectations helps lighten the load tremendously. And when unprecedented pandemics hit us out of the blue, it becomes even more important to develop and sustain a healthy relationship with things we can’t know or control if we want to build resilience and a positive outlook. Let go of the urge to control what you can’t.

Recognize and distance yourself from people that cause anxiety: Oftentimes, the source of our anxiety is the people we’re closest to. Our relationships can leave us emotionally depleted in small ways that we hardly acknowledge in the moment, but that cumulatively wear us down over time. Evaluate the relationships you have control over and ask yourself if they leave you more drained than fulfilled. If it’s the former, take a step back and create some distance with them. You don’t have to cut them out of your life entirely but you do need to create some boundaries around them. By recognizing the effects of your relationships on your mental health and well-being, you can begin to nurture more of those that are (mutually) fulfilling and cut back on those that leave you anxiously spent. For a starter, reassess the value of the naysayers and dry texters in your life. Do you really need that kind of negativity right now?

Decompress: Hit pause. Ditch the phone. Take a break from your routine and indulge in an activity that leaves you feeling good about yourself. Any activity that creatively engages your mind can break the pattern of anxiety and loosen its grip on you. Write a gratitude letter (count your blessings). Write a rant (let it all out). Draw something (let your hand run free). Go stroll at the terrace (and talk to yourself while you’re at it). Cook something (preferably not noodles). Declutter your surroundings. Exercise or meditate. Empower yourself with small actions because they can make a big difference.

Nurture a compassionate relationship with yourself: Anxiety makes us critical of our own self. It pushes us in a vicious spiral of self-consciousness that makes us judge ourselves too harshly and overthink everything. Rather than be self-conscious, channel your anxious energy into becoming self-aware. Ask yourself, “If a friend came to me with my predicament, what would I tell them?” We’re usually kinder and more compassionate to others than we are to ourselves. Oftentimes when we talk to someone about our problems, we aren’t looking for their advice or solutions, we just want to be heard. Listen to yourself. Listen to what your mind (and body) is trying to tell you. Be patient with yourself. Write down your thoughts to get a tangible and outward perspective of them. While your own self is no substitute to a close friend/partner, it helps to have an emotional intimacy with yourself. Most of life’s problems become a lot easier to navigate when you’re self aware. Be that compassionate friend to yourself.

While we can’t eliminate anxiety from our lives, we don’t have to accept it as destiny either. Just like any good thing in life, reducing anxiety requires investment on our part in terms of effort and time. Trying one or more of the aforementioned strategies will not drastically change things for you overnight, but they can do wonders for you over time. The ongoing crisis has already changed our lives in substantial ways, use it as a chance to create a more purposeful future where anxiety doesn’t consume you or restrict your worldview. After all, this challenge may be huge, but it’s surely not our last.

Yugal Sehgal writes about life, mindfulness, and people. He lives in India. Follow him and @drawcuments on Instagram.