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A psychologist explained where this damn anxiety comes from

Understanding it to cope with it


Young people are increasingly anxious today. And not just about being successful or seeing the world, as they always have been and should be, but also in a literal sense.

Concern about the future, their own and the planet's, social and job anxiety, these are different kinds of malaise that characterize the younger generation. This is also highlighted in a 2023 report by the research firm GWI that collected responses from more than 900,000 people worldwide.

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The study shows that 3 out of 10 Generation Z teens are prone to anxiety, the highest proportion among all age groups. 29% of them feel they suffer from anxiety and would like help. This is also stated by 24% of Millennials.

Data that in Italy find confirmation in a survey conducted by the Adolescence Laboratory on 5,000 adolescents. 40% of them say they often feel anxious to the point of distress, with peaks among girls.

But how does it develop and what are the characteristics of this emotional state that grips a generation (or perhaps two)?

We asked those who deal with it on a daily basis, such as Emanuele Caldarelli, a Gestalt school clinical psychologist working in Milan.

Emanuele explain to us what anxiety is and how it arises?

Anxiety is a complex phenomenon with different concauses, but it is inherent in life, in the sense that living is anxious, as existentialists used to say, because there is a lot of uncertainty in the world and consequently it is normal to feel this emotion. Even it can be physiological and even positive. In fact, we talk about good anxiety and negative anxiety, kind of like cholesterol (smiles, Ed.)

When does it become a problem?

When it prevents us from doing what we want to do. When we can't talk to the people we'd like to talk to, get out of the house and freely relate to each other without thinking that they are judging us. Or if it makes it impossible for us to try to take an exam, a test or go to school. In these cases, anxiety projects us into an experience of suffering, physical and mental pain, which precludes us from realizing our intentions.

What is the path it takes in our head?

Anxiety is only a symptom and is the manifestation of an impediment. Where there is anxiety there is actually a desire. A definition I really like is, "Anxiety is nothing but excitement without oxygen support." Where there is anxiety there is a very strong vitality, there is a desire to meet each other, to be seen, to be liked and to be loved. Only for various reasons we don't feel supported in this movement, in this desire, which then crystallizes.

Would you give us some examples?

I am afraid that if I allow myself to meet the other and thus make myself visible, the other will not be there or will abandon me. Or if I want to challenge myself with a school assignment, I will not have the resources to do so. And so begins a vicious cycle in which I want something but am convinced that I do not have the necessary support and prevent myself from trying. Anxiety is a control mechanism: I try to control the outcome, I try to control the fact that I will have to please the other person, but this is perverse because it is impossible.

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Why are young people more at risk?

Certainly the younger generation is more susceptible to this phenomenon in general, in fact we are now also talking about ecoanxiety and an almost existential anxiety related to the future of the world. In addition, anxiety syndromes that also manifest themselves in self-harm and eating disorders are increasing. It is probably because we are in a historical context where this is amplified and at the same time that famous support from the outside is lacking. And then there is also a great fear of failure. Getting it wrong generates a very deep sense of shame, which you don't know how to handle and so you try to avoid it.

What can be done about anxiety?

I believe that we should stop looking for techniques to manage anxiety, because being the pathology of control, if we try to control it we are actually feeding it. On the contrary, we should start seeing it as a part of us that tries to make itself heard. And so what we need to do instead of shushing it even more is to try to stop ourselves understanding what it wants to tell us.

Try to get to the root of the problems, then.

Absolutely. You have to learn to listen to yourself and take responsibility, but without taking on the impossible. Creativity then is so important because it means learning to be a little bit in the midst of chaos, indulging in improvisation and discovering the beauty of bringing things to life. In fact, dance therapy, art therapy and theater therapy greatly support this kind of process. So do sports. Then there are also breathing methods that can help us feel a greater connection with ourselves.

In addition to getting help.

Meeting referring adults who may be psychologists, psychotherapists or other professionals is crucial. On the other hand, it is also necessary to change a little bit the mindset of how we relate to problems. It is not always necessary to label all pathologies. Mind you, naming is important, but more so is understanding what my experience is and what it speaks to me about. Otherwise, it's like putting on a band-aid when you actually have to open the wound first and understand how you cut yourself.

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What other advice would you give to kids?

To not feel alone. A lot of young people I work with who suffer from anxiety feel lonely, but that's not true-they're not alone in experiencing it, so even trying to deal with it alone doesn't make sense. Doing community will really make a difference in solving this epidemic. We have to kind of rediscover brotherhood, relationship with others and share this frailty part. Again, that thing we fear is the treasure that could allow us to solve many, many things.



Illustration by Gloria Dozio - Acrimònia Studios