Arresting the downward tumble

Neerja Singh

All the smart marketing jargon, shrewd political negotiations and original, earth-shaking ideas will come a cropper if we leave behind a world not fit enough for our young. The other worrying fact is that they themselves exhibit a troubling lack of resilience to make a go of their legacy from us.

Do you remember how it was? There was a virtual cocoon of distance and silence around my generation as we advanced through our teen years into adulthood. There was space to breathe and hear ourselves think. There was only a trickle of information about our peers that reached us. We met them in school or college or at work and the rest of the time was spent at home, doing our own thing. The adult world inspired confidence and assurance.

The children today sit under a waterfall of information about everyone else their age across mother earth’s curvature. There is no escaping how well or poorly they compare with their contemporaries. And it is not just them, their families know the degree of differences too because everybody is on the same social media platform. There is no getting away.

Imagine going through life with gritted teeth, pictures of your classmate’s rising popularity curve, foreign exchange program and that unholy trip to the beaches with her ‘oh so cool’ family competing with their Instagram retouched book festival story. Everyone else appears to be sorted on all fronts; all of it figured out, life’s boxes in place. And there you are, at age 15, living in mortal fear of your house-of-cards falling. You know there has been another shooting in the United States. Your social media feed tells you about the glaciers sliding towards the plains. There are videos of plastic activists screaming at you that your body is spontaneously absorbing 5 gms of plastic every week. Your best friend just cancelled on you. Your friends are telling you to pipe down and not be so hypercompetitive. Your parents direct mixed messages at you about giving your exam a 1000 per cent but then feeling frustrated if you do not score well on a the subject. Your grandmother has observations on your appearance. There seems no respite.

These are heartbreaking times. Youth was supposed to be the spring of life, a time of promise and vitality looking ahead with eyes of wonder. Instead, you have zoomers aged 14 on medication protocol for anxiety. Those young bodies have already seen enough. These are spirits that are perplexed at the chaotic waves of misinformation, polarizing views, and poorly researched opinions crashing against their weary minds. It is not unusual to have a zoomer share, “There is nothing to look forward to.” And this if you are honoured enough to be privy to the workings of their inner minds. For the rest of us, it is withdrawal, disconnect, even dissonance. Families are no longer able to keep up with their young; that space has been taken over by friends, therapists, YouTube and Google.

My generation and Gen X frequently wonder what the fuss is all about. Did we not provide well enough for the next generation? Have we not been in standby mode for them since forever? Do we not keep them fed, hydrated, and financed enough? When did we not drop everything to rush to assist them in their hour of crisis? Is it not abundantly clear that we stay informed of their whereabouts and keep track of their life events? What more could we be doing?

Ironically enough, this defensive self-dialogue reaches the kids only to add to their anxiety.

It might stun older generations to know that the teenagers, many of them are anxious at an existential level, are wondering about the meaning of life. There is a new ambivalence about the significance of their own lives. Of course, there is anxiety about money, will there be enough of it? There is a latent resentment at the climate change, the quality of political discourse, the state of security in public spaces, the sudden jolt of their phone buzzing, a school/work alert or update. The anxiety looms, like a dark cloud overhead; coupled with a keenly felt awareness of not just the passage of time but also the scope of a lifetime that they fail to make sense of without panic flooding their young minds.

The troubling fact is that this anxiousness stemming from their hypercompetitive lives infests the entire gamut, right from the honours student to homework avoidant quarter. Both struggle with the moment-to-moment, day-to-day stress in their lives, the first by seeking therapy and the second by going into hiding and self-medicating with drugs, alcohol, video-games, or binge-watching. Few and fortunate are the young people who are able to go unscathed by anxiety today.

Anxiety can hit as dizziness, nausea, headache, or even joint pain. A panic attack may appear in the form of symptoms reflecting an excruciating fear. Most people, if pushed will probably admit to an ongoing state of anxiety, a persistent buzz of dread at the back of their minds. It can take many forms. Children may likely respond by avoiding school. Some may blank out during tests or public speaking. For others, anxiety can cause acid reflux. It is common to experience an impulse to vape or grab the phone or just act out. The heart can knock and the blood pressures shoot up. The manifestations of profound anxiety are all around us.

In order to understand how pervasive and intrusive this phenomenon is, I would urge school communities to organize a screening of Angst, an IndieFlix Original documentary designed to raise awareness around anxiety. The film includes interviews with kids, teens, educators, experts, parents and a very special interview with Michael Phelps. The goal of the film is to help people identify and understand the symptoms of anxiety and encourage them to reach out for help. The film also points viewers towards tools, resources, and above all, hope. https://angstmovie.com/.

Just below that surface of anxiety and self-loathing borne by many young today, there is special courage, and strength and kindness. I can’t think of a bigger mandate than to help them see these qualities in themselves without a crisis precipitating their awareness.

The message that needs to go to our children is that balance and goodness of fit at work and emotional wellness are in the final analysis, the cornerstones of success.

The author is a professional speaker on Generational Empathy. She is a former teacher/journalist, published author with a background and training in media, having worked in advertising, public relations, documentary film making, and feature journalism. She can be reached at [email protected].

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