When I was in college, I remember hearing from various sources that the job market would prove challenging when I graduated. I didn’t quite know what that meant. It sounded bad. At the same time, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do when I graduated, so thoughts like “job market” weren’t in my lexicon and therefore carried little weight.
Little did I know, the state of the job market would have a cascading effect on my generation, not only impacting job availability and finances, but also influencing our physiological health.
Why millennials are the most stressed generation
Over the last couple of years, the American Psychology Association (APA) has reported in their annual Stress in America survey that millennials are the most stressed generation.
Across all generations, finances are the biggest cause of stress, and the same goes for millennials. But it’s a bit more complicated than that.
Millennials in the workplace
Millennials make up the highest percentage of “work martyrs.” They work long hours, remain constantly in touch, and don’t take vacations. Moreover, millennials are making 20% less than the previous generation at the same point, and lower income is associated with high stress. (1)
High levels of stress actually decrease work performance and focus. It’s also been proven that working overtime is futile, as the quality and efficiency of work deteriorates rapidly, in addition to the physical and psychological health of the workers.
Millennials report the following reasons for their work-related stress: Unreasonable workloads and deadlines, unrealistic managers, and unattainable work-life balance. (2)
Millennials and technology
In the 2017 APA report on stress in the United States, a large emphasis was place on the interactions between stress and technology, particularly among millennials. Technology has a negative impact on the physical and mental health of its users, even more so among a group they named “constant checkers.”
These are the people who are attached to their devices, flipping from one screen to the next, constantly checking email, social media, and texts. 43% of American adults are “constant checkers,” and 63% of millennials say they’re attached to their phone or tablet. Millennials report higher stress rates in direct association with their use of technology.
Although 65% of users agree that incorporating digital detoxes and periods of unplugging is important for a balanced, only 28% of those same people take such measures.
Despite being more connected, we also feel more alone. 44% of constant checkers report feeling isolated because of technology, even when they’re with their families. Additionally, 35% of constant checkers say they’re less likely to meet with their friends and family in person because of technology.
In the report, Katherine Nordal, PhD and an APA executive director, is quoted saying, “The role that a lack of social support plays in a person’s health is often underestimated. Loneliness has been associated with a wide variety of health problems including high blood pressure, diminished immunity and heart disease. In fact, low levels of social support have even been linked to increased risk of death from heart disease, infectious disease, and cancer.”
Millennials and politics
Unlike any other generation, millennials are likely to say their stress has increased in the last year. One influencing factor is the current political climate.
For social media users, the stress of the 2017 election was even higher. Not only are millennials concerned about current politics, they’re even more concerned with the future of the nation, including topics like personal safety, police violence, the economy, and terrorism.
Nordal writes, “We know that chronic stress can take a toll on a person’s health. It can make existing health problems worse, and even cause disease, either because of changes in the body or bad habits people develop to cope with stress. The bottom line is that stress can lead to real physical and emotional health consequences.”
What can be done?
Alright, we’re stressed. We get it. What can we do about it?
The good news is there are many things we can do to manage stress. Most of them are lifestyle choices, and the main question is: what steps are you willing to take to make positive changes for your overall well-being?
Changing our mindsets
Just because this is how things are does not mean it’s how they have to be.
It’s time to seriously consider how certain stressors are affecting your quality of life. Are expectations at work unrealistic? Is your friend group filling you with negativity? Is your relationship unsatisfying and aggravating, yet you stay because it's easy?
Some stressors are in our power to control, change, and terminate, and others aren’t. (3) Of the stressors that can be changed, explore improvements. Talk to your superior at work about changing the way in which deadlines are set so you can produce premium quality work instead of rushing projects that need a great deal of attention.
If your friends generally sit around and complain, set a rule that the first five minutes are dedicated to whinging, and the rest of the time is for sharing in the present moment. Or conversely, you can start by stating three things you’re grateful for.
Ultimately, if something is causing you stress and anxiety, and you can’t find a solution for improving the current situation, explore removing the stressor entirely. This isn’t always possible, as much of life is outside our control. If this is the case, you can change your relationship to the stressor.
Let’s explore an example: There’s someone at work you really can’t stand. Every time they come into a room, you feel your body tense up. You’re just waiting for them to say something, do something, breath in a certain way that will set you off in a furious ball of discomfort and anxiety. For whatever reason, they push your buttons, and you do everything you can to avoid them, but it’s impossible, unless you were to quit your job, which you don’t want to do.
Here is a common experience we encounter outside our control: other people. What do we do? For starters, passive-aggressive actions and raging about them to our co-workers doesn’t solve the problem. Not only does it not change our experience of this rival, it does nothing to alleviate our stress or make us feel better about ourselves.
Instead, open your mind and heart to this person. How much do you know about their life growing up, what their home was like, their insecurities, what’s happening in their life right now? Chances are, not much. Even if they talk about some of these things, it’s probably not in an open, vulnerable way.
When you next encounter this person, try sending them compassion. Here’s an easy set of phrases you can repeat in your head:
May you be happy.
May you be healthy.
May you be peaceful.
Of course, you don’t wish ill on them, even as they drive you bonkers. Take that intention even further and wish happiness on them. Or, if you feel yourself completely closing down, say those phrases to yourself (i.e. May I be happy…).
You don’t have to become their best friend. You don’t need to purposefully interact with them more than you have to, but you can cultivate empathy, well-wishes, and space for the great mystery of being human. We never know what someone is experiencing – sometimes we don’t know what we’re experiencing! – and it’s powerful to give someone compassion, even if we don’t know why they’d need it. Everyone needs it, and compassion inherently softens our hearts and makes us feel better, too.
Prioritize your self-care
One of my teachers says, “Discipline is just remembering what you want.” We can try to guilt, shame, and bully ourselves into healthy habits, but it never works. Instead, set goals that align with remembering what you want.
Do you want a stronger body? You know what you gotta do! To feel more restful? Staying up late means you won't get a good night's sleep. Less stress? Nothing is going to improve by sitting around complaining – it's time to take action.
Certain techniques and tactics for self-care will work differently for each person, but ultimately the root of the matter comes down to how badly you want to see a desired outcome. Get up a bit earlier and exercise first thing in the morning. Spend Sunday cooking healthy meals you can freeze, even if it means you can’t go out with your friends. Set aside one night a week where you stay in and connect with your sweetheart.
Do whatever you need to do to be successful. Do whatever you need to do to take care of yourself and reduce your stress. Dare I point out – your life depends on it.
It’s time to get real about technology: our brains are addicted. We’ve learned to cope with stress by turning to technology, looking for distraction and alleviation of the inevitable discomforts accompanying stress.
Above we discussed the consequences of being a “constant checker” and being on social media. 90% of American adults ages 18-29 used social media in 2015. (4) Even though we’re concerned about the impact of technology on our health, many of us don’t take action to change our relationship. Here are some simple things you can start today:
Don’t sleep with your phone in your room. (5) At least an hour before bed, put your phone away, plugging it in for the night. Bonus points if you turn it off. Removing the temptation to check your phone will not only benefit your sleep cycle, but will help reduce stressful ruminations throughout the night.
Leave work at work. When we act as “work martyrs” and take our workday home, we don’t have a clear distinction between working and living. It’s too easy to continue checking emails or answering texts throughout the evening, and it also doesn’t allow our nervous systems to take a break.
Set a hard time when you’ll be done with work, especially if you work from home. Have an automated response that let’s people know you won’t be in touch for the rest of the evening, and will be sure to address their message in the morning. The world will keep on spinning, and you’ll feel better prepared to jump back in after you've rested.
Have a detox day. At least once a month (or once a week if you’re serious about managing your stress), have a day where you’re completely technology free. Think of it as a challenge in addition to something for your well-being. What’s it like to manage without constant stimulation? How present can you become with the simple things around you? What creative ideas arise in the absence of information overload?
Don’t watch TV after work. This might seem counter-intuitive. We turn to TV and Netflix as a means of turning our brains off, being entertained, and relaxing.
The truth is, unless you’re watching something funny, TV doesn’t allow your nervous systems to relax, keeping your heart rate up and blood pressure high. (6) This makes it harder to get to sleep, an important aspect of being productive and balanced. Save your shows for the weekend and go on a walk instead, or call up a friend, or read a book. See if your stress levels change.
The truth is, we’re all going through stuff, and we all experience stress. It’s a normal part of everyday life, whether you’re a millennial, retired, or a child. We often think we’re alone with our wild thoughts and ruminations, but we’re not.
The more we can practice being vulnerable, opening up with trusted people around us, the more we’ll realize we’re in this together. Even though stress gives us a “the-world-is-ending” feeling, there’s so much perspective to be gained from what’s around us.
We don’t need to diminish our experiences, or disregard mental illness, but instead find healthy ways to open up and feel held by the world at large. There’s a lot of beauty and pain – and stress! – and there’s room for it all, just as there’s room for connection, healing, and ease. Let’s meet in the spaciousness.