Knotted in anxiety: That’s how 25-year old Helen Hunter describes herself. She doesn’t sleep much at night. The Dubai-based university student has indulged in “new and unhealthy” habits lately to absolve herself of piercing anxiety: Sleeplessness, constant fidgeting, scrolling through her social media apps till late at night and enjoying the occasional binge. “I’m eating more chocolates regularly now,” she says rather abashedly.
Asked what troubles her, she finds it hard to pin down a reason. The reason for her “anxiety knots” as she calls them, is because she missed out on a year at university owing to a deeply personal family loss. It was also in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, to make matters worse. So, she had to stay home in London, away from her close friends and without a job and couldn’t even attend online classes at university. She returned to university later, and then came her next hassle: Internships and landing a possible job.
The anxiety overwhelms her, to the point where she feels heavy and close to tears all the time. “But my parents keep telling me to toughen up and that they’ve been through harder times. That makes me feel worse,” she says rather ruefully.
She doesn’t believe there’s much point confiding in people from older generations or ‘Gen X’. She rolls her eyes and says, “Everyone dismisses us as Gen Z, as if we’re entitled brats. People just have a we-suffered-so-you-suffered too attitude,” says Hunter, shrugging her shoulders. “And then everyone wonders why there is a generation gap.”
The unprecedented challenges that ‘fragile’ Gen Z has faced
Hunter isn’t entirely wrong when she says most from the previous generation have rather conflicting opinions of Gen Z: There are many scholarly articles on the subject, with many painting the newer lot as “fragile, depressed and anxious”. In fact, Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the New York University wrote lengthy volumes on how the “supposed fragility” of Gen Z is a “national crisis” in United States, according to the Forbes website that had quoted the research.
However, Haidt did mention the numerous challenges that the current generation has had to face, without mincing words. He acknowledged that the generation has had to contend with political upheavals, financial turmoil and natural disasters. The Covid-19 pandemic that upended their lives during formative years that should have been spent in college or learning the ethos of the workplace. These factors took a toll on people’s well-being. He spelled out several reasons for aggravation of mental health issues, including the addiction to phones, which was the most prominent factor.
It’s the desperation to stay plugged in, and the inability to switch off, he noted. However, there’s more to it.
Gen Z: The struggles with anxiety in a digital age
“Everyone makes it sound like we invented anxiety or something,” says baffled 24-year-old Tamanna Raj(name changed on request), who has just landed her first internship at a public relations firm in Dubai.
Does she feel that the ‘Gen Z anxiety’ differs from the previous generations? “I think it’s because we have social media,” Raj answers. “It’s a boon and a bane. We see all major historical events taking place in front of our eyes in the form of consecutive tweets, videos, which the earlier generations didn’t have. There’s information everywhere; nothing is hidden. They grew up with newspapers and books; we see everything playing out in front of us in real time. And it’s difficult for us to tear ourselves away from it.”
News saturation through an overwhelming amount of information online can lead to information overload and anxiety, especially when trying to keep up with news, trends, and academic requirements. They’re always plugged in, says Scott Armstrong, the owner of Mentl, the Dubai-based wellness platform. They’re over-stimulated with information. They stay up late to consume social media, and this disrupts their sleep patterns.
Social media affects Gen Z on a deeply personal and psychological level as well. Explaining more about this necessary evil, Devika Mankani, chief positive psychologist at Dubai-based Fortes Education asserts, “Gen Z are digital natives. They’ve grown up with constant connectivity and exposure to social media, which fosters feelings of comparison, cyberbullying and information overload, all of which leads to anxiety.”
They look at other’s lives on social media apps and believe it is somewhat ideal, harbouring resentment that theirs isn’t as perfect. This feeling eats into them, as they keep aiming for impossible standards of perfection.
Gen Z are digital natives. They’ve grown up with constant connectivity and exposure to social media, which fosters feelings of comparison, cyberbullying and information overload, all of which leads to anxiety...
They are always comparing themselves to see how they measure up, explains Johanna Richmond, psychologist at CBT Dubai. "They develop anxiety, panic attacks due to a fear, as they worry that they do not meet an acceptable image. That depends on their self-esteem," she says. They feel less content, and have a sense of worthlessness. They fear being rejected by others, and negatively evaluated by their peers.
They develop anxiety, panic attacks due to a fear, as they worry that they do not meet an acceptable image. This also depends on their self-esteem. They fear being rejected...
Adding to this, 19-year-old Pauline Apoorva, a Dubai-based student at Heriot-Watt University agrees that people keep trying to measure up to difficult standards. These impractical ideals foster a negative environment, leading to increased stress among people. There is a prevailing sense that one must conform to these unattainable standards, creating anxiety about societal perceptions and peer judgments."
These impractical ideals foster a negative environment, leading to increased stress among people. There is a prevailing sense that one must conform to these unattainable standards, creating anxiety about societal perceptions and peer judgments
‘Doom on the horizon’
With social media, comes an eminent fear of some sort of future disaster. Gen Z also despair about climate change, environmental concerns and the future of the planet apart from anxiety regarding their future, according to Mankani.
Sarah Jaquette Ray, an American teacher of environmental studies, wrote in a 2020 paper, Generation Z are ‘The Climate Generation’, and they have been ‘traumatised’ by their awareness of the issue. “Some students become so overwhelmed with despair and grief that they shut down. Their sense of powerlessness, whether real or imagined, is at the root of their despair,” she had written.
This rage was reflected in Greta Thunberg’s famed UN speech in 2030, where she had said tearfully, “Around the year 2030… we will be in a position where we set off an irreversible chain reaction beyond human control, that will most likely lead to the end of our civilization as we know it.”
There are a series of such predictions that worry the current generation, climate change being just one of them. Many Gen Z also fear the power of AI, Artificial Intelligence, which could replace all their jobs in the next twenty years, says Hunter. These overwhelming predictions keep piling up, adding to the overwhelming stress of finding jobs and social media addictions.
The Covid-19 pandemic
It’s also crucial to see the social and cultural context that Gen Z has grown up in.
A study conducted by Harmony Healthcare IT, an American data management firm that works in healthcare, surveyed more than a thousand people aged 18 to 24 about their mental health and concerns about their generation’s future.
Much of Gen Z mental health struggles are connected to the global pandemic, which began in 2019, the survey found. A quarter of respondents were diagnosed with conditions including anxiety, depression, or PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) during the height of the pandemic. Nearly 70 per cent say the pandemic was tough on their mental health. It made them feel lonely and concerned about the future, the survey revealed. These formative years that should have been spent in socialising or in education, enjoying college life was spent in confined spaces at home for months at a stretch.
Manya Parekh, an Abu Dhabi-based housewife, explains how Covid-19 impacted her 26-year-old daughter, who had just landed her first job at the time of the pandemic. “My daughter, who is a very social person, felt extremely alone and anxious during the pandemic, without meeting her colleagues regularly. As everything became digital, and everyone was stressed, there was a sense of disconnect,” she says.
The anxiety that took roots during the pandemic still has a grip on her daughter, says Parekh. “She still has traces of social anxiety and is uncomfortable with being in large groups of people. She has a fear of being judged, still,” she says.
How Gen Z has promoted the rise of mental health awareness
“Everyone calls us the TikTok generation. They say we are addicted to our phones. But we are also the ones who discuss mental health the most through various platforms,” says 24-year-old Aliah, a Dubai-based student. “TikTok gets slammed all the time for cringe, but it is also a platform where people feel open to talk about mental health,” says Youssef. “Gen Z is trying to open up the conversation around mental health and depression. The times are different now,” she says.
Youssef recalls how she has “binge-watched” many videos on TikTok, where people discussed their battles with depression and anxiety, and how they overcame it. “It helps other people come forward with their problems. ” she says.
Moreover, technology, for all its faults, has allowed easy access to mental health information, resources and helplines, says Maria Fey, a British Dubai-based wellness expert.
“They have been proactive in discussing mental health openly and advocating for improved awareness and support. Through social media advocacy, Gen Z individuals often use their platforms to share their own experiences with anxiety, which helps raise awareness and normalise discussions about mental health,” she says. Adds Mankani, “They have been active in organising mental health awareness campaigns, participating in movements like #MentalHealthMatters, and advocating for better mental health resources in schools and communities.”