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Anxiety: The New Young Woman's Health Crisis

Posted: December 10, 2010

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Fine—and all true. But wasn’t the Great Depression stressful too? And why should we get more worked up about Tiger than, say, our grandmothers did over a social system that kept many of them from working outside the home or dating whomever they wished? Are our modern lives really that much more stressful? “The answer appears to be yes,” says anxiety researcher Jean Twenge, PhD, a professor at San Diego State University and author of Generation Me. “Anxiety rates have risen steadily over the past seven decades, during good economic times and bad.”

How pressure can lead to anxiety

She believes the rise is related to a cultural shift, over the last 70 years, away from “intrinsic” values—appreciating things like close relationships and having a real love for your work—toward more “extrinsic” ones, like money and status. In fact, her research found that anxiety rates rose at the same pace with this change in mindset. “Recent generations have been told over and over again, ‘You can be anything you want to be. You can have the big job title. You can have the big bank account.’ And in the case of women, ‘You can have this perfect body.’ That puts a lot on a person’s shoulders—and it’s also not really true. These are things that aren’t always under your control, but that disconnect creates a lot of anxiety about how hard you need to work to achieve them—and a deep fear of failure,” she explains. “And although these extrinsic values—the latest iPad, the cutest shoes—seem important, all the evidence shows that at the end of the day they don’t leave us very happy or satisfied.”

Why women are more anxious now than in previous generations

The argument, in other words, is that our grandmothers and great-grandmothers were able to tune out their stresses in part because they had more satisfying personal values to fall back on. They also probably had more quiet time to contemplate their worries in a productive way—something in short supply now.

Are women too connected?

“Everyone works all the time, and there are no boundaries between work and personal life anymore,” says a 29-year-old Glamour reader from Jersey City, New Jersey, who recently began struggling with panic attacks. “Your to-do list is enormous, and then you have to go home, cook dinner, work out, check in with friends, spend time with your boyfriend or family. There’s just a lot of pressure.” Nolen-Hoeksema agrees: “People feel they should always be on, and that they could be called upon at any moment to do something. Our e-mail and iPhones are constantly pinging, which keeps anxiety heightened all the time.” That’s exactly what exacerbated Ikpi’s panic attacks a few years ago. “Every time my cell phone rang, or I heard an e-mail or text come through, I’d get this overwhelming feeling of dread,” she says. “My heart raced. I got nauseous and dizzy and couldn’t breathe. It was so intense at times that I truly believed I was going to die.” At that time, she was experiencing two to three panic attacks each day.

Why Facebook friends won’t cut it

Social networking, experts say, is also problematic, since connecting virtually with a friend is not the same as seeing them, hugging them or hearing the tone of their voice. “Having a Twitter- or Facebook-only friend,” says Twenge, “is like having a junk food relationship.” You may be keeping in touch, but without face-to-face interaction, you miss out on the true bonding that studies show can help protect against mental health problems.

Why are women more likely to get anxiety?