OPINION — Gas prices don’t seem to be the only thing that’s going up these days. Across all levels of society, anxiety appears to be on its way to becoming the new normal.
Nowhere am I seeing this more than in young people. It’s more than just the standard sense of nervousness or worry. Young people are feeling overwhelmed to the point where anxiety has surpassed depression as the primary reason that college students seek out counseling.
For the past several years, there has been increasing alarm and attempts to raise awareness about the growing number of suicidal teenagers. This is particularly true around back-to-school time.
My wife Becky, who is a middle school math teacher, tells me that she is seeing a similar dynamic at work among her students. It’s not just the kids from broken homes or challenging circumstances. Even those students who seem to have everything lined up in their favor are struggling.
People grumble about how hard it is to get a drink or to have legal access to medicinal cannabis in the state of Utah, yet our state has the reputation of taking so many anti-depressants that we rattle when we walk.
What has changed in our lives that is feeding this growing sense of fragility?
It’s not simply the everything-makes-me-a-victim mentality that some use to try to gain a perceived ideological advantage over others. Kids who are crying to their parents because they’re stressed out over taking SAGE tests at school aren’t playing politics.
What should we think when even preteens agonize over a test because they’re worried that substandard performance will mean that they won’t get into the college of their choice and won’t get a good job and will end up a failure in life? I personally knew a straight-A high school student who attempted suicide after receiving his first B grade.
I can’t help but wonder if, at some level, our rising anxiety levels aren’t tied to a distorted need for social approval in order to maintain a misguided sense of status.
In this respect, status can best be understood as a compulsion to compare ourselves to others. This is deeply destructive in that it keeps us looking for ways to feel superior to someone else or, even worse, it keeps us focused on our own shortcomings.
For instance, consider how much time we spend each week on social media versus how much time we spend in contemplation, worship or engaging in personal acts of service.
Social media has some positive aspects in how it allows us to connect with others. Unfortunately, it also serves to arouse some of our most unhealthy inclinations to seek status.
We can become so consumed with how our life is being portrayed online that we forget to step away from our electronic screens and focus upon the real deal. A multibillion-dollar advertising industry teaches us that how we measure up is determined by brand names that will win us the approval of others.
The answer isn’t to renounce technology and to become Luddites. However, there is growing evidence that smartphones and teen depression and anxiety go hand in hand. A little awareness could go a long way toward helping susceptible teens and adults maintain needed perspective.
One of the most liberating things we can do in easing anxiety is to begin to wean ourselves from the need for approval from others.
This seems harder than it actually is.
It starts with the recognition that we don’t have to be or think like everyone else. Social approval can be a nice thing but when it becomes the basis upon which we make our decisions, we’re no longer charting our own course.
As Paul Rosenberg has sagely warned, anyone who refuses to conform to what everyone else is doing can expect to be criticized for not sticking to the popular script. Just know that none of our lives must be subject to the approval of others.
Aristotle explained why this matters:
We should as far as possible immortalize ourselves and do all we can to live according to the best element within us – for if it is small in bulk, it is far greater than anything else in power and worth.
Staying within the herd seems like the best way to minimize fear or risk but it keeps us from being able to live life on our own terms.
The day that we accept the fact that what others think of us is none of our business is the day that we step out of our self-forged chains. We are free to, as Einstein put it, “see with [our] own eyes and to feel with [own] hearts.”
Self-ownership is an antidote to anxiety. The earlier in life we learn this, the sooner we can stop chasing empty promises of status.
Bryan Hyde is an opinion columnist specializing in current events and liberty viewed through what he calls the lens of common sense. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
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