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How Did Anxiety Become a Trend?

For me, this past summer was a hugely transformative. I was a camp counselor, which is a very common seasonal job for young people in America. While it was more rewarding than anything I’ve ever done in the past, there were still moments where I found myself in the supply closet clutching construction paper and sobbing quietly.

There was one moment this past summer that I still think about frequently. We had a lot of amazing international staff, and one night after training ended we all went out for dinner. At some point in the midst of chatting, laughing, and stuffing our faces, the subject of mental health came up. We were all sharing “war stories”, so to speak, about our encounters with anxiety and depression, when my German friend expressed some confusion. As it turns out, mental health issues are not as prevalent in her country.

My immediate reaction was slightly defensive. I’m usually pretty proud of how open American people are about self-care and mental illness (it’s one of the few things we do right), so I proposed that maybe it actually was common in Germany to be anxious or depressed but not discussed as frequently. However, now that I’m back at school, I can’t help but begin to understand the anxiety crisis in America as, at least in part, a cultural phenomenon.

As an avid reader and social media consumer, “anxiety” has been a pretty hot topic in this country for as long as I can remember, and I think I might finally understand why it plagues us Westerners. The reality is that people are taking on more and sleeping less. We double fist espressos, ingest supplements, and engage in risky behaviors to disguise the fact that we’re burning the candle at both ends.

It’s a point of pride, really, to tell people how unhappy or stressed we feel because we’re biting off more than we can chew. All the while, I’m infuriated with myself, because I subscribe to this culture, too. When a friend lays out their schedule for me, I almost feel ashamed that I’m volunteering, going to class, writing, editing, stage managing, and still getting 8-9 hours of sleep every night!

This is not to say that overloading is the only cause of anxiety, because that would be misinterpreting what anxiety really is. Anxiety is the sense of being overwhelmed or terrified without anything but the mere anticipation of something bad occurring. If anything, being constantly busy is harmful because it’s caused us to replace introspection with action. Watching an episode on Netflix instead of studying for four straight hours isn’t always “lazy”. Leaving one class early to attend a concert isn’t all bad. It might just mean that we’re taking a step back from the hustle and bustle of daily life in an effort to understand ourselves better. For those people who find fulfillment in being super productive, I think that’s amazing. However, taking on more and more just to say you can is not a means to being happy.

It’s time that we end this scourge of anxiety by telling people that what they do is enough, and that instead, we need to demand more from ourselves and each other in terms of personal relationships. Once we decide to choose innate happiness over success, we will become a happier nation.

Emily is a senior *gulps* at Emmanuel College with a great passion for psychology, writing, and theatre. She loves animals, movies, museums, and smiling. Bukowski is her favorite poet, and she identifies with Tina Belcher on a very strong spiritual level. 
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