An Anxious Generation: Anxiety in Teens and Young Adults

Adults with jobs and family responsibilities may long for the carefree days of youth, but studies show that today’s young adults have plenty of worries of their own.

According to a University of California, San Francisco study of 2,809 young adults ages 18 to 25 nearly half (48 percent) reported symptoms of depression, anxiety, or other mental health concerns. Among those with symptoms, 39 percent reported using prescription medications and/or receiving counseling, and 36 percent reported unmet counseling needs.

Separating from one’s parents and leaving home have always been anxiety-provoking experiences, but today’s young people have less privacy as they make these major transitions, learning and growing under the unforgiving eye of peers and even strangers on social media.

“It’s expected that adolescents test their social interactions,” says Dario V. LaRocca, MD, a board-certified psychiatrist and Independence Blue Cross Behavioral Health Medical Director. “Traditionally, it would be in a dorm with people you know. But with social media, you never really know who you’re talking to or where they’re coming from. Without body language or social cues, it’s easy to make a mistake that gets picked up and amplified,” says Dr. LaRocca, who is also the father of three daughters, ages 20 to 31.

Online Pressures

Having a presence on social media often forces people to pretend to be someone they’re not. Faith Attig, 21, a student at Penn State University’s Abington campus and an intern in Independence’s Corporate Communications department says, “There’s pressure to create a brand — to be somebody and to be perfect online even when you’re not.” At the same time, “there’s pressure to be authentic, because people are so quick to judge and call you out.”

As a result, “a lot of my generation likes to disappear [digitally],” Attig says. “We don’t like people to know where we are. Life gets to be too much.”

But social media is just one part of the conversation about rising rates of anxiety in teens and young adults. Researchers and social critics have proposed other potential contributors, from economic and environmental uncertainty and overprotective parents to poor diets and sedentary lifestyles.

Anxiety today is more prone to push people to isolate, LaRocca says, a trend that has been amplified by the pandemic. Fortunately, there is less stigma around depression and anxiety with this generation. “I’m surprised by how quickly people are ready to acknowledge it [mental health issues],” he says.

Ways to Cope

One important way to cope with anxiety and depression is to take a break from social media and create a life outside of the internet, Dr. LaRocca says. “Find friends you can talk to offline, whom you can trust. And if you feel overwhelmed, meet with a professional, ideally in person. Talk to people of different generations in person to get a different perspective.” You can keep in touch online, Dr. LaRocca says, “but being with people in person is still important, and can help reduce anxiety by reducing isolation.”

Other coping mechanisms include:

If You Need Help

If you or someone you know is in immediate distress or is thinking about hurting themselves, call the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline toll-free at 1-800-273-TALK, (8255) or call or text the new 988.

For more information about depression, self-care strategies and where to find help, visit ibx.com/knowyourmind.

Take a Minute to Breathe

Ariana Grande’s popular song “breathin’” is an anthem to anxiety that speaks to a simple solution with a multitude of benefits. “Don’t know what else to try, but you tell me every time, just keep breathin’ and breathin’” chants the pop superstar.

Unfortunately, most of us weren’t taught the simple techniques and range of positive outcomes that come with—well—simply breathing.

It happens to all of us. Feelings like anxiety, stress, and fear cause our breathing to be shallow, irregular, or rapid. It’s entirely normal. Our body’s automatic response is to protect itself. The trick is to focus not on what’s happening around us, but to what is happening within us. We are breathing. It’s our most basic instinct.

Practicing steady, deep breathing delivers more oxygen to the body and brain, reduces your heart rate and decreases the release of cortisol—better known as the stress hormone. Deep breathing also releases endorphins. This in turn increases a sense of calm and can combat pain.

Other known benefits of deep breathing include:

  • Lower blood pressure –Relaxation opens the blood vessels and improves circulation
  • More energy—From increased oxygen to the circulatory system
  • Less headache pain – Due to reduced tension locked in the shoulders and neck (you’ll rest better, too!)

Practice Makes Perfect

Getting back to steadier breaths is within reach. All it takes is a few minutes of practice. The American Psychiatry Association (APA) created one solution called “Just Breathe.” For three to four minutes a day:

  • Think about your body. (Are you breathing rapidly, forgetting to take a breath altogether, or taking shallow gasps?)
  • Begin breathing slowly and deeply for a count of four
  • Hold that breath in for a count of four
  • Slowly let the breath out for a count of six

Why does this work? Our brains can tell when we have varying emotions. Taking a few minutes to exercise a large organ in our body – our lungs – refocuses precious energy and retrains the way our body responds to our feelings.

Self-Care is Good Care

Almost everyone can relate to Grande’s refrain, “Time goes by, and I can’t control my mind.”

When this does happen to you, remember to breathe. Better yet, be proactive and take a small step in self-care by scheduling 4 minutes of ‘me time’ on your iPhone or calendar. Devote that time to breathing exercises.

Then, the next time someone asks you “How are you,” it will ring true when you reply, “I am good!”