For a period of about a week last spring, I thought that my entire life was falling apart. A particularly challenging organic chemistry final was mere days away, and the studying was starting to burn me out. Add a large dose of normal college FOMO, romantic woes, worries about the geopolitical state of the world at large and my brain all but quit on me.

I’m happy to report that, contrary to what I had convinced myself of at the time, my life wasn’t over! This seems obvious in retrospect, but out of every single one of the worries I just listed off, only one of them, the chemistry test, had any immediate importance. Yet when I was asked by my family and friends why I was so worked up, it was because I felt like each and every one of these worries was an equally monumental obstacle in front of me…together forming a wall that was slowly closing in around me.

This is a pattern that I have found myself in again and again over my (admittedly limited) teenage and adult life, and something that is becoming increasingly common in many of today’s young adult population. The National Institute of Health recently reported that nearly a third of all U.S. adults will experience an anxiety disorder sometime in their life, and that 19.1% – nearly 1 in 5- have suffered from some kind of anxiety disorder in the past year.


Taming your inner beast

I was aware of the concept of mindfulness at the time, but unfortunately it was not my ‘default setting’… and it still isn’t! But after researching more, I am convinced that more of us ought to try making it so.

As much as we humans like to imagine ourselves above from the rest of the animal kingdom, the truth is we’re still right at home among them. Despite our society and culture progressing over millennia, our “mental hardware” hasn’t changed all that much. In reality, we’re a bunch of animals running experiments on ourselves nearly all of the time. During that harrowing week in 2023, my fight-or-flight instinct was in full overdrive. I wasn’t just thinking about my problems, I was living them and in some ways, had become defined by them. Mindfulness techniques are designed purposefully to combat this kind of thought trap by taking advantage of the innate power of human curiosity.

The American Psychological Association defines mindfulness as “awareness of one’s internal states and surroundings.” The basic premise is to be “fully present,” and aware of all of the stimuli (both external and internal) affecting you at a given moment.  This starts with the basics. Where am I? What am I doing? Who is with me? The next step is to do this same analysis but applied to your inner world. Instead of just feeling your emotions, try to label them. What am I feeling? Why am I feeling that way?

In essence, mindfulness helps you separate what you are experiencing into more manageable “chunks” that can be focused on individually. In the case of my experience, the process would go something like this:

I am feeling stressed, because I do not feel ready for this chemistry test and need to study more. I am also feeling insecure about my love life and social situation, and I am anxious and afraid of the political state of the world at large.

When you list out your worries in this manner, it can become much easier to pick apart which ones truly matter in the moment and which ones can be shelved. Why am I feeling out of control today and not every day? In reality, my upcoming chemistry test was the only stimulus out of the four that wasn’t there every day, so that’s the one I decided to focus on. That may seem obvious to an objective observer, but when life throws its most stressful days your way, it can be difficult to be objective with yourself. Mindfulness helps you do just that.

The most difficult part of using mindfulness is to recognize when emotions are starting to overwhelm your rational thought processes. I’ve found that once you’re too far down the rabbit hole of doom, it can be difficult to dig yourself out. Being able to recognize when your emotions are beginning to take hold is crucial to being able to rationalize them. This is a skill that takes time to improve upon, and last spring I was not in a place to use it. I still am not immune to having downright awful days, but at the very least I can say I have gotten a bit better at talking myself out of a spiral of worry.

Mindfulness is more important now than ever

The mindfulness technique I described above can be useful for anyone, but I truly believe that Gen Z can benefit from it more than any generation that has come before. This isn’t because Gen Z is less emotionally stable, but rather because life is getting harder. Studies have shown that in recent decades, rates of day-to-day stress has been consistently rising among young Americans. Overall happiness, meanwhile, has been consistently falling.

Older generations are all too familiar with the struggle of dealing with work, social obligations, family, errands, appointments, and the rest of modern life’s intersecting challenges. Trying to juggle everything at once can get anyone’s emotions in a tangle. Let’s also not forget the pandemic, which the APA has found still lingers on in the form of residual stress for all adults. Those of us in the Gen Z crowd have to deal with many of these challenges as well, but with the addition of increased wealth inequality, a lack of access to affordable healthcare and housing, the potential impact of AI on the job market we’ll be graduating into, and the increasingly visible impact of global warming.

In a world where many work to the point of exhaustion just to keep up, having a few effective coping mechanisms at our disposal can be a metaphorical lifeline. And while mindfulness cannot solve the actual problems facing today’s young adults, I do believe that it can certainly help us manage the stress that comes with them. I have experienced this firsthand. Slowing down and keeping tabs on what’s going through your head is one of the best ways you can keep your cool in a world of overlapping priorities that refuses to stop heating up.

Sources:

APA Staff. “Mindfulness.” American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association, www.apa.org/topics/mindfulness. Accessed 24 Apr. 2024.

APA Staff. “Stress in America 2023: A Nation Recovering from Collective Trauma.” American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association, www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2023/collective-trauma-recovery. Accessed 24 Apr. 2024.

NIH Staff. “Any Anxiety Disorder.” National Institute of Mental Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/any-anxiety-disorder. Accessed 24 Apr. 2024.

ABOUT RYAN

Ryan Meshanko is an intern at Legacy Business Cultures who is completing his senior year at the University of California, Los Angeles. He will be graduating this summer with a B.S. in Marine Biology and will start his graduate studies at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment in the fall. Ryan believes in making all workplaces more welcome, but to him, the most welcoming workplace is the ocean!