“Consciousness has plagued us and we cannot shake it; though we think we’re in control… questions that besiege us in life are testament of our helplessness.” ~ Bad Religion, No Control
When you think about your grandparents and their ancestors, your memories may not reflect the hardships they endured; hardships that people today are not subjected to. Human memories only contain the information available to the brain at the time. If you were a child staying with grandma and grandpa, you are more likely to remember the treats and games more than the laundry and dishes they washed during your visit. That is normal – you were just a kid. However, if you think back carefully, you probably do not recall them discussing bouts of anxiety or depression, either.
This is likely due to the fact that their experiences were very different from those of modern society. According to an article on Psychology Today, Dr. Peter Gray writes:
“Today, by at least some estimates, five to eight times as many high school and college students meet the criteria for diagnosis of major depression and/or anxiety disorder as was true half a century or more ago.”
The question here is why that is – were people hardier a century ago? Did they simply not have the mental health issues that people do now? Or is the occurrence of these symptoms related to new technology, diet, and general goals in life? As it turns out, it is a combination of factors.
1) Survival Trumps Emotion
If you go back in history, to the time when our evolutionary forefathers and mothers lived in hunter-gatherer mode, there was little time for contemplating the meaning of life. During that period, our only purpose was to survive and procreate. This explains why a break-up can sometimes feel like the end of the world; back then, the end of a relationship could mean impending death for a person left alone without the tools for survival.
Fast-forward to the Great Depression Era, a period seemingly more pertinent to current lifestyles. Shortly after the market crash rendered the United States financially incapacitated, a drought encompassing the Great Plains area now known as the Dust Bowl, reduced hundreds of miles of land to actual dust. Crops were non-existent in this massive area. The combination of high unemployment and reduced access to food forced people to live on very little means. Facing such dire straits was not a cause for anxiety and depression for most people; they were much more concerned with feeding their families than worrying about emotional distress.
2) External v. Internal Goals
A research study published in 2010 by Dr. Jean Twenge et. al reports there has been a major shift in values of young people from internal to external. In the past, people were generally more inclined to find purpose from within, focusing more on developing themselves as human beings rather than pursuing wealth and reputation. Dr. Gray notes of Twenge’s findings, “We have much less personal control over achievement of extrinsic goals than intrinsic goals.”
If we believe we must rely on outside forces rather than finding happiness from within, we are left with a sense of powerlessness. For example, if your belief that getting the perfect job is going to be the only way you can find happiness, you are setting yourself up for failure for two reasons.
First, if you don’t get the job, it is likely you will lose confidence in your ability to find other work, and possibly become depressed, thus perpetuating a negative cycle of behavior.
Secondly, if you do land the job, you may soon find that you are no longer satisfied, and perhaps begin seeking a promotion or raise. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to progress; it is human nature to want more once a goal has been achieved. The problem is when you begin to base your happiness on outside forces over which you have no control.
Toni Bernhard discusses this concept in her book, How to Wake Up. The idea that everything must go your way in order for you to be happy will ultimately lead to dukkha. The word dukkha – known as the third mark of experience in Buddhist philosophy – is roughly translated as suffering. Dukkha is caused by tanha, which translates to desire of wanting or not wanting something in our lives. If our suffering is caused by desire, then logically we must rid ourselves of the desire to have everything go our way in order to feel good. Sometimes things just don’t – and that’s okay. Bernhard notes, “if we try to control all of life’s circumstances, we’ll be rife with dissatisfaction.”
3) Helicopter Parenting
Helicopter parenting is not simply due to the overbearing mother who wants little Suzie to get accepted to grad school before she is out of diapers. Surely, that is one aspect of the problem, but there’s more. The helicopter parent arose out of the soccer mom cause in the 90’s, which emerged after the “Self Esteem” movement of the 70’s. This parenting style is also a result of much stricter penalties being handed down to parents who leave their children unattended.
20 years ago, kids roamed the neighborhoods with no parental supervision and no one batted an eye. Today, people are (rightfully) frightened of being charged with neglect and losing their children for allowing them to play at the park alone. The result? Children are now forced to stay inside to accommodate busy parental schedules, spending more time in front of the television and computer than riding bicycles.
As for the helicopter parents who want Johnny to be successful, they drag him from each planned activity to the next, preparing him for the mundane life he will face in the future. If that is all young people have to look forward to, it is no wonder they are depressed. In 2008, George Carlin said, “[Kids are being] pressured to succeed for the sake of the parents. Isn’t this just a sophisticated form of child abuse?”
Not only does parenting this way cause depression from the lack of control children have over their lives, it adds to the anxiety of living up to everyone else’s expectations. Even worse, this type of parenting gives children little confidence to make their own decisions when they become adults. Evidence of this inability to cope is seen across college campuses nationwide, which are becoming “helicopter institutions“. Again, the feeling of being powerless due to external circumstances (in this case, parental and school expectations) adds to depression and anxiety.
4) Medication Culture
Medicating children to curb their actions is a logical extension of over-parenting. This may occur if parents and doctors are too quick to manage the child’s behavior with medication before examining other alternatives. Oftentimes, anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, and other drugs are automatically dispensed without figuring out the root cause of the symptoms. Treating every issue with medication is a dangerous way to work with young people. This is due to the very real threat that some pharmaceuticals increase suicidal thoughts, especially in people under age 24.
Picture this scenario, a true story:
A 17-year-old male, who shall remain anonymous to protect his family, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder after a suicide attempt in 2011. In response, he was prescribed a mood stabilizer, generically known as gabapentin. The drug made him nauseous, though, and he became very thin. Due to the side effects, his psychiatrist prescribed Zoloft instead, and Adderall for Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). There is no doubt that he suffered from both problems, but pharmaceutical drugs exacerbated his symptoms. After doctors experimented with multiple types of medication – and forcing the young man to participate in group therapy with people who were much more incapacitated than himself – he grew even sicker.
After 4 years of trying to recover with meds and counseling, the 21-year-old man took his life after a misunderstanding between him, his friend, and a girl they both liked. The suicide traumatized the man’s father. As a result, he too was prescribed Zoloft for his depression. After 14 months, his dad is still taking pills to deal with his grief. He does fairly well when he takes the medication regularly, but if he forgets he becomes erratic and angry.
The victim’s mother has stated multiple times her husband’s behavior reminds her of the same outbursts her son displayed after he began taking pharmaceuticals to treat his illnesses. Since his father began taking the drugs to cope with his loss, he is now dependent on them to prevent him from having meltdown. His wife believes he may never be able to come off of the medication. Sadly, this was part of the reason his son took his own life. His diagnosis made him believe he needed to rely on counselors and pharmaceuticals with no hope of recovery, ever. For some, that is too much to bear.
As human beings we have to learn how to manage our feelings without the use of a crutch. If we never learn how to deal with our suffering, we draw ourselves deeper into it. While there are of course situations where medication can and does make the difference, it is not a panacea — it does not always help us cope; sometimes it merely masks the symptoms. This brings us to other external sources we use as methods of escape which actually increase depression and anxiety.
5) Diet, Alcohol & Other Dependencies
The idiom, “You are what you eat,” would be more accurate if it was replaced with, “You are what you consume.” This includes how you spend your time. People who binge eat feel a rush while they are partaking in a feast, but feel guilty soon afterward. This behavior leads to depression, but later turns to anxiety because the person is hungry – and wants to binge – again.
This pattern does not only concern overeaters. It applies to almost any behavior people overindulge in: alcohol, illegal and legal drugs, sex, technology, shopping, gambling, pornography, working excessively, relational dependency, obsessing over cleanliness, and even exercise. This list goes on.
What do all of these things have in common? They are external sources of comfort. A means to an end which never quite fills that void. This may work as a temporary fix, but habits are only “successful” as a coping mechanism when a person has access to the consumable of choice (COC). Once access to the consumable is removed, a person may revert to anxiety because craving is still present. The drive to obtain the COC may become so strong, a person may even commit criminal acts to counter the overwhelming feelings.
6) The Media
Plato said, “Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder.” This may have been true in ancient Greece, but in modern America, not so much. Since the invention of television, humans have been bombarded with visual reminders of beauty – which happens to be determined by the high standards of companies pushing their products and services. It started at slowly at first, but over the last three decades, the sexualizing of women in media has gotten out of control.
This is partially due to capitalism, but there’s more to it than that. With the rise of social media has come the “selfie” movement, if you can call it that. This is a double-edged sword: attractive women are demeaning themselves in the name of earning followers and short-lived popularity, while others develop depression and anxiety because they are not considered beautiful by millions of strangers.
For all of the women with “beautiful girl syndrome,” this is a perfect platform for them to become more engrossed in their vanity – worse yet, they are applauded and sometimes paid for it. However, looks fade. Working as an Instagram model is great for now, but a little short-sighted when it comes to long-term goals. Unless you’re a Kardashian, which most of us aren’t.
Another downside to this sort of encouragement is those women are denying themselves the opportunity to grow as people. Being judged by the size of one’s thigh gap is not the key to lowering depression or anxiety. Since body shaming people has become fairly common on the internet, the response is strong women proving to “haters” they are not ashamed.
So it is no surprise to hear about these same girls posing nude or semi-nude in provocative poses and posting them for the world to see. It is great to be proud of your body, but the end result of these sort of photos is not empowerment; it simply adds to the collective misogyny women have faced for centuries. It hurts women and men, because it gives men a false sense of what “women really want” – which may lead to sexual assault and jail time, two additional problems which can cause depression and anxiety for everyone involved.
For the females who are less confident, it gets even worse. It has been debated whether the internet and social media have actually caused people to commit suicide. A research study published in the American Journal of Health notes that the concept of the media contagion adds to increased suicide, as well as the amount of information available to people who are thinking of doing so. Furthermore, cyberbullying and cyberstalking are also recognized as contributing factors which can lead to suicide. And what causes suicide? Usually, depression and anxiety; surprise, surprise!
The lesson here is that we need not look outside of ourselves to discover what the world has in store for us. Being too reliant on others to make us happy will only end in disappointment. One must seek out one’s own purpose, and become accepting of the fact that life is full of both joy and sorrow. Holding onto one and resisting the other leads to suffering because life simply does not work that way.
Things cannot (and will not) be great all the time. Change happens. Shifting our desire from the external to internal is ultimately the only way to find peace within, because all we can truly control in this world is ourselves.