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90 Percent of Generation Z Says They’re Stressed Out. Here’s Why.

Two leading mental health experts explain what we can do about it.

Courtesy of  Urbazon / Getty Images 

While somewhat alarming, we’re not surprised by the recent statistics surfaced in the American Psychological Association’s annual Stress in America report, which found that 91 percent of Generation Z — those of high school and college age — said they had felt physical or emotional symptoms, such as depression or anxiety, associated with stress.

Notably less stressed are the Boomer parents and early Gen-Xers who had free-range childhoods, with less anxiety over safety and well-being, and fewer academic pressures. This TIME article queries, “Is gun violence partly to blame?” Yes, partly.

These students were born at the time of the Columbine gun massacre in 1999; next, they witnessed the World Trade towers repetitively fall in slow motion as their horrified parents were transfixed by those images; they experienced the economic fallout of the global Great Recession of 2008 on their parents and families; they were traumatized by the 2012 shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary, and again, more recently, that in Parkland, Florida; and altogether internalized these frightening messages: The World Is Dangerous; I’m Not Safe.

In our clinical work with young people growing up in the Information Age, we have been struck by the lengths they will go to reduce their profound sense of vulnerability. Their efforts to wrest control of the “unsafe” narrative contributes to their own perfectionistic strivings for the best grades, the most “Likes,” and the over-stuffed resumes upon which they base their sense of self-worth and security. Who wouldn’t be stressed?

Yet there has also been an intergenerational stress-filled interplay between today’s parents and youths. Parental exposures to the world’s dangers, including the rise in daily violence, were accentuated by the constant news push of their smartphones. Parents then attempted to exert more control to keep their children safe, with arranged play dates, no peanut butter in school, trigger warnings in classrooms and frequent monitoring of their kids’ whereabouts. Parents thus transmit their own anxieties, which has an inevitably contagious effect on children.

Returning to gun violence, 74 percent of parents called school shootings a significant source of stress, closely matched by 72 percent of Gen Z students. Since 2000 there have been school shootings at the rate of about one a month, resulting in the deaths of about 250 students and teachers. This shameful and horrifying statistic of our country and culture certainly contributes to stress.

Yet the deep fear embedded in these real threats and understandable anxieties also leads to cognitive distortions. We mistakenly believe that the catastrophic possibility is probable. The probable then becomes a certainty, leading to fatalism and despair. Youth don’t have enough life experience to sort out the differences between risk and inevitability — hence their greater sensitivity to prevailing cultural messages of “doom and gloom.”

The tragedy of school shootings blares across the nightly news. Yet, the more insidious and invisible threats to psychological health and well-being — which lead to heightened stress, and emotional distress, with their attendant rates of youth suicide, anxiety and depression — are of a commonplace type. The APA survey highlights the significance of the following factors:

  • High levels of loneliness.
  • Substitution of social media for a true friendship network.
  • Constant bombardment of negative self-comparisons.
  • A narrowing definition of life success leading to destructive perfectionism and all-or-nothing thinking.

What to do about the disturbing findings of this latest research on stress among today’s youth?

From our vantage point, the best approaches to buffering stress/anxiety/distress include the following tips:

  • Practice better coping through exercise, mindfulness meditation, self-acceptance, etc.
  • Develop and cultivate close friendships in “real” time and space.
  • Engage in working for meaningful actions to address societal sources of stress
  • Limit smartphone use and social media exposure — it reduces negative self-judgment.
  • Family communication helps: When parents listen (not lecture) kids will talk.
  • Learn to ask for help. You are not alone.

The most encouraging finding is that 75 percent of survey respondents across all age groups feel hopeful about the future. We imagine that in a manner similar to the stressed youth of the 1960s, who faced the threats of the nuclear arms race, the Vietnam War, and the civil unrest generated by racial, economic and social inequality, this younger generation will find ways to transform their stress about the world into political action and culture change. We already see signs of this in the March for Our Lives movement and the growing number of young people registering to vote.

B. Janet Hibbs, Ph.D. and Anthony L. Rostain, M.D., M.A., are the co-authors of the forthcoming book, The Stressed Years of the Their Lives (St. Martin’s Press, 2019)

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