Anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health problems and have been referred to as a “silent epidemic”. According to Mental Health Ireland, one in six people will experience a mental health issue, such as anxiety, every year with that figure steadily rising. More and more twentysomething women are struggling with anxiety and panic attacks, many undiagnosed and untreated. While boys are also affected, worldwide studies reveal that more girls are susceptible.
Why is there so much anxiety and panic among millennials?
This is an age group where 75 per cent of mental health problems arise. There are biological, social and psychological factors that contribute to wellbeing. World events have intruded on vulnerable psyches with church scandals, corruption, terrorist attacks, child abductions, murders and celebrity deaths rocking their sense of safety. But previous generations were exposed to wars, recessions, trauma and worse health.
The role of intensive parenting has also been cited as a factor. Young women are less independent with a deficit in coping skills, staying as students and at home for longer. Recreational drugs and alcohol have been found to trigger and exasperate anxiety and panic attacks, but there are more pervasive influences at play across the board.
What I observe as a recurring theme is screen dependence and overthinking. The majority of twentysomethings grew up alongside a plethora of technological advances and social media. Girls have grown up with aspirations to have it all: the toned body; being smart; making a lot of money; being positive and happy. A virtual glossy version of life was sold to them and, as a result, many are plagued by perfectionism, excessive expectations, a harsh inner critic and an obsessive need to achieve.
This is an overstimulated generation. Excessive screen use boosts the release of stress hormones and increases central nervous system arousal. Sleep becomes disturbed which makes you even edgier. Switching off is happening less as young people remain “on” living in an adrenalised way.
Studies have shown that men and women’s brains are wired differently which fosters different thinking styles. Men that attend with me for counselling tend to seek strategies and logical solutions to move on. Young women experiencing anxiety tend to obsess, ruminate and reflect. Better nutrition from birth has boosted brain function, IQ and abstract thinking. This “smart” generation are flooded with knowledge from the internet priming the tendency to overthink and analyse too much. The more anxiety, the more that thinking is speeded up. With approximately 60,000-80,000 thoughts a day, within seconds each one has a physiological impact.
Technology-free times and zones, especially at night time, improves sleep which plays a vital role in alleviating anxiety
Anne (not her real name) came to me for therapy after enduring years desensitised to anxiety. When she experienced her first panic attack, she thought she was losing her mind and would never feel well again. She felt like she was choking, her heart was racing and her chest felt constricted. Everything felt surreal and her muscles tightened hard. She was left with the fear of the fear and could not relax. Over the preceeding months she had been busy at college and not sleeping well. Anne described being on the screen more and living more and more in her head. Her world shrunk with even a trip to the shops too overwhelming to face. She avoided friends, noisy crowded places and felt constantly on edge. Sleep and appetite were compromised and she was scanning excessively to check symptoms.
With some lifestyle changes, a screen detox, strategies and college support, she got back on her feet. What Anne said helped most was realising it was adrenaline, that it would pass and shifting anxiety provoking thoughts. Mindfulness helped her develop a healthier relationship with thoughts and lesson her reaction to the panic.
What can help this panic stricken demography?
Developing a healthier relationship with thoughts can ease symptoms. Healthy ways to get out of the head and off screens calm the system down. Evidence-based therapies such as CBT, understanding anxiety and panic attacks, apps such as Headspace and a review of lifestyle all help. Exercise programmes that are not excessive, regular eating to maintain blood sugar levels, hydration and reduction in caffeine, sugar and alcohol and no recreational drugs are all part of an effective anxiety programme. Healthy face to face interactions and distractions soothe the mind.
Technology-free times and zones, especially at night time, improves sleep which plays a vital role in alleviating anxiety. Screen dependence, like caffeine, can make an anxious person feel wired, so use in moderation is recommended. Thought processes speed up with high anxiety levels, so awareness and less reaction to them eases the fight, flight or freeze state.
It is essential that schools, peers, educators, GPs and other health professionals receive more training in mental health and psychological wellness. Early interventions, such as wellbeing sessions, need to be implemented from junior infants to foster resilience. Anxiety is often underestimated in children, but it does not usually go away unless treated. The Irish Primary Principles Network reported a “disturbing trend” relating to pupil’s wellbeing with anxiety being one of the major issues.
If we are seeing an epidemic of anxiety among our young women, what is the next generation going to be faced with? Let us help them cope.
Niamh Delmar is a counselling psychologist and mental health educator