Nicola Morgan

Author, Speaker, Supporter

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Questions about anxiety – #2 – Is anxiety new or different these days?

This is the second in my series answering your questions about teenage anxiety. You can ask a question, too. If you do that here, you can also enter the giveaway (until July 14th)!

Susan’s question is:

“Do you think anxiety has always existed as much but it’s just talked about a lot more now?”

This is a really tricky one. It’s hard to measure so we have to go on opinion, impression and experience/anecdotes, but here’s what I think we can fairly and reasonably say.

First, let’s be clear what we mean by “anxiety”.

I think we also usually mean worry and stress. Biologically they are almost identical, as I explain in No Worries. (I’ll write a post about this soon.) Even though there are some differences, I think we can talk about them as the same subject. I think by “anxiety” we mean something to do with the physical and mental experiences that happen when the brain detects or believes it has detected a threat, something to worry about. We experience anxiety when there is or seems to be something to worry about.

Where I think people are muddled is in using the word to mean both the normal, appropriate response to threat and the unhealthy over-reaction or constant anxious reaction even when there is no threat. So there’s useful, healthy anxiety and there’s anxiety that induces symptoms of illness that prevent us coping. (Someone has just asked a question about how we tell the difference and I will certainly write about that.)

One of the problems – and this is relatively new – is that people don’t clarify which they mean and consequently appear to mean the second when in fact it is more likely to be the first.

Second, I think we can all agree that it is talked about a lot more now than, for example, forty years ago when I was a teenager.

In 2001 a survey by Oxford University Press showed that “anxiety” was the most common word used by 9-16 year-olds when talking about wellbeing. It does feel that the word and the topic itself are ubiquitous now. People of all ages talk about “suffering from anxiety”. Sometimes they have been to a medical practitioner about it and sometimes they haven’t. Whether they have or not, they will have learnt some strategies and ideas about how to deal with it. They’ve probably read about it. Everyone seems to have an idea of whether they tend or tend not to be more or less anxious people.

And I really don’t think anyone would argue that the majority of people, ordinary people would have talked about it anything like as much as that, if at all, many years ago.

So, yes, we do talk about it more. Some might say too much.

But, third, of course anxiety/stress has always existed

In 2011 or so, when I was contracted to write The Teenage Guide to Stress, adults would say to me, disparagingly, “Oh there was no such thing as teenage stress in my day.” I have had that said to me by both a GP and a head teacher. And multiple times by various adults over the years.

Of course there was stress/anxiety! It’s an entirely natural, healthy, appropriate response to threat or perceived threat, as I said at the beginning. When the brain detects a lion, snake or enemy, it should react to wake us up and send oxygen coursing round our body ready for whatever life-saving action is required. We should worry about germs, risk, hostile people, exams, performances, races, challenges, failure, criticism, death, pain, poverty, homelessness, loneliness and loss.

And of course there was teenage stress because there were teenagers and teenagers are human.

Different ages and stages have different things to be anxious about – although also many of the same. Adults have some things that teenagers generally don’t have – such as managing household finances or keeping a job. Teenagers have to worry about things adults more often don’t – such as teacher approval, homework and exams, puberty, identity, major body changes, acne, bullying, studying subjects they feel a failure at.

But I think there’s something deeper to this question. I think there are two real questions:

Is there more anxiety now or do we only talk about it more:

and

If there is more anxiety now, is it at least partly because we talk about it more? In other words, does talking about it increase it?

And these questions are definitely tricky. We can’t be sure of the answer – where would the evidence be? So we can only have hunches. And here are mine.

While it would be ludicrous to argue that there is more anxiety for the “average” person (whoever that is) in the UK than there was for people in the UK during, say, the Blitz during World War II, or for people suffering the worst of the Depression of the 1930s, or more anxiety for us than for people in Ukraine (or Palestine or Yemen or many other places in conflict and danger) at the moment, I think we could agree that for many (but not all) groups of people and individuals in the UK and other similar countries, there is probably more to be stressed and anxious about now than there has been in my living memory. (I was born in 1961.)

We’ve had Covid, for a start. And that’s one heck of a start! The financial crisis is hitting very many people and worry about money is a huge burden of anxiety. Even if teenagers don’t usually pay bills they still hear and worry about the concerns of their parents. The war in Ukraine is horrible to read about and imagine – and affects us, too, though not in the sense of fearing for our lives on a daily basis, which is something I find hard to imagine fully. And anxiety about the effects of climate change is real and legitimate.

 

So, we can argue that at the moment there is a lot to be anxious about, possibly more than say twenty years ago. At least for some groups of people. Possibly the majority – we can’t really say.

And we do talk about it more. This is partly because we talk more – in the sense of communicating with many people and reading/writing many different things; partly because we understand anxiety better and we know more about its effects, treatments and preventions; and partly because we nowadays feel less inhibited about saying “I’m suffering”.

So, does talking about anxiety raise anxiety?

It could. But it could also reduce it.

If I’m anxious about something and I talk to the right person about it, I’m likely to feel better, not worse. And that certainly applies to most worries for most people: talking to the right person is a good idea and can be predicted to reduce anxiety.

But talking to the wrong person would make it worse. And listening to everyone around you discussing their anxiety is quite likely to raise your anxiety.

You know the story of Chicken Licken? Chicken Licken was very anxious about the idea of the sky falling in. She has a reason to be anxious about this because an acorn fell on her head. Her brain interprets this as a threat and she naturally becomes anxious. (Unfortunately, her brain then failed to investigate and discover that actually it wa

s just an acorn.) She tells various friends that the sky is falling in – which is very kind of her but unfortunately they are just as reactive and irrational as her and believe her. So they all become anxious and she becomes even more anxious. They meet a fox and tell him. There are a few different endings to the story but in at least some Chicken Licken and her friends are never seen again. So talking to the wrong people- each other and a wily villain, in this case – is not helpful.

As an aside, I noticed that the analysis of the story in the blog I happened to link to doesn’t mention anxiety as one of the things to learn from the story. I’m not suggesting that it was part of the point of the story but my point is that it illustrates that anxiety can be contagious. So, if you talk to anxious people but might well find your anxiety does not decrease.

I also think that talking to a very non-anxious person could also be unhelpful IF the person is unempathetic and unintuitive and/or knows nothing about how to listen to an anxious person. This is because if you say “I’m anxious about XYZ” and the other person says, “Oh, that’s silly – there’s nothing to be anxious about there” it does not do anything to stop you feeling anxious.

If I’m worried there’s a ghost in my wardrobe and you laugh and say don’t be silly, there’s no ghost in the wardrobe, why should that be reassuring? It adds to my anxiety because now I think no one is going to help me or listen to me. Or bother to check the wardrobe sufficiently carefully.

I believe I’m the right person to talk to about anxiety and I have the right words.

You will find those words:

  1. In various places on this blog, especially this month and next
  2. In my talks – I now almost exclusively talk to parents, teachers and other professionals, rather than young people, as I believe that a stranger coming in and addressing a whole diverse group (ie people with a mass of different mental states) about anxiety is not the best way to tackle anxiety. Book me soon as my diary fills up fast.
  3. In No Worries, the book which is published on August 3rd but is available for pre-order – and if you use the link on this page, I benefit and so do independent bookshops

In short

I believe anxiety has always existed, that it has been at different levels for different groups of people at different times; that we do talk about it more now and it is more in the open; that it is possible that more people “suffer” from it than they did earlier in my lifetime, which might partly be exacerbated by talking about it more. Talking about it more is both good and bad, depending on who you talk to and who you listen to and what words you hear and read.

I’m glad we talk about it more but I would like the right voices to be louder and the unhelpful voices to be quieter. Chicken Licken needs to read my books.


Don’t forget to enter the giveaway (till July 14th) – here

And consider buying a Gift for a Teenager including a signed copy of No Worries

Here’s my answer to another question:

Question about anxiety – #1

Do comment but please remember that this site is for all ages.

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