Today’s university students are experiencing anxiety at higher rates than before, and anxiety is now more common than depression, on top of many other pressing concerns. It used to be the other way around. Various arguments can be made as to why this is. One researcher claims that there has been an increase in a sense of threat combined with a diminished affiliation with others over the past 50 years in American culture. This would certainly be a recipe for heightened anxiety. Readers should be cautioned here: this does not mean that younger generations are ‘sicker’, as some have claimed. It is more out of their own financial interests, in my opinion.
Anxiety has only been clinically recognised around 30 years ago, but this does not mean that this is something new. In fact, Sigmund Freud and Soren Kierkegaard wrote books on this during their times. And even earlier than that, in the fourth century BC, Hippocrates characterised anxiety as ‘a difficult disease’, adding that the ‘patient thinks he has something like a thorn, something pricking him in his viscera, and nausea torments him.’
But the way we deal with anxiety has been dramatically transformed. Some believe that parents have responded to these cultural shifts by increasing parental supervision and control of their children, in part, based on fears or mistrust of others. While there may be a rational basis for such choices, this ‘helicopter’ parenting style may also result in further problems. The style is increasingly implicated in the problems young adults experience at a later stage. The thinking goes like this: if you put your child in a bubble to protect them, they won’t learn how to handle life’s scrapes and bruises and, later, cannot cope well when they have those scrapes and bruises, as we all will. Certainly, many counsellors will recognise this pattern among the issues they see in students.
It has been noted that such anxiety is even ‘contagious’. That is, it can be transmitted from one party or generation to another over and above any contribution by genetics. This transmission may in fact happen in just the manner described above, by overprotecting them we deprive them of the opportunity to adapt. Some parents were raised in a similar manner and thus pass it along to the next generation. But this is not inevitable if we all learn how to better confront life’s challenges and gain emotional mastery over them.
In this coping and adjustment sense, anxiety is not always bad. We have to experience it to know what to cope with and learn how best to manage it. In short, it is a necessary part of learning and maturity. Without it we can be easily overwhelmed by even the simplest of life tasks, such as managing time, taking healthy risks, coping with periods of stress, and making important decisions.
Put simply, it is always better to acquire new skills than it is to avoid a problem. This is especially true if the problem is not truly avoidable. One may successfully get through life by avoiding snakes, for example (though even that can be overcome too.). But one would have great difficulty getting through life avoiding stress and ordinary challenges.
Dr Lee Keyes is a psychologist and administrator at a university counselling centre. He has interest in the administration of mental health services, among others.
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