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Our tense twenties: how living in an age of anxiety is affecting us

From climate change to Covid and now the Ukraine war. Everyone is feeling anxious – can we cope with any more?

Photo: The New European

No one who knows me would ever accuse me of underplaying a crisis. Or a problem. Or a slight contretemps. Perhaps it’s the Irish gene for storytelling. Tall storytelling. 

But when the lights went out a few weeks ago while I was cooking dinner at home, I even surprised myself by how quickly I went into full Mach-3 catastrophisation. It’s not as though I am scared of power cuts. I lived in Senegal and Kenya for years – the lights went out regularly and our longest power cut was five days in Nairobi.

But when the lights/cooker/TV/radio died just before 7pm and my daughters and I realised that we also had no phone signal and that all the lights in the neighbourhood were out, I immediately assumed Russia had launched some kind of devastating cyberattack. Could it be the prelude to a nuclear strike? I looked anxiously out of the kitchen window in the direction of London, scanning the sky for a mushroom cloud. 

The rest as they say is history. It wasn’t a cyberattack and the power did eventually come back, after nearly two hours. But before that, I went to some very dark places. Of course, this is ridiculous. I was being ridiculous. But I wasn’t alone. As I confessed to my irrational panic in the pub the next night, a man nodded sagely and said: “I thought the same”.

I can’t imagine what it must be like to live in Ukraine now, to look out the window and know the bombs are definitely coming, or to protest against the war in Russia and know that you will definitely be arrested. Or to struggle to survive in Yemen, or Ethiopia, or Syria, or any of the other myriad crises speckling the globe today and to know that you are definitely not going to make it.

All I know is that for the lucky rest of us, standing at the edge of the dark forest of conflict and crisis, it seems we have reached peak anxiety. Everything feels fraught, uncertain. We are scared of nuclear war, we feel helpless in the face of atrocities in Ukraine, we turn off the news when people talk about the climate emergency because we just can’t handle the enormity. We are tired of news about Covid. We don’t want to know about a new variant.

There have been global crises before, dark times full of war and death. The difference now perhaps is that every crisis feels existential and each new horrific development is beamed into our brains through our phones, our computers or the 24-hour news channels on our always-on TVs. It may not be particularly useful to compare what is happening now with long-gone conflicts because then, everyone didn’t live everything all the time. You lived your own horror, and shared others’ once or twice a day when the news bulletins came on. You couldn’t and didn’t live it all, everywhere, 24/7.

Another thing marking out this period of crisis is its duration; we have been at peak anxiety since  2020 when a flu-like virus snuck across borders and shut down the world.

“Other generations have experienced threats but what we’ve had is continually chronic negative threats going on for a couple of years now,” said Professor Barbara Sahakian, from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Psychiatry. “So for two years we’ve been bombarded with negative information in the news about our lives, the environment, the future and it’s making people very anxious and depressed … It’s been a unique situation because of all these things coming together and because of the lockdowns.”

The lockdowns really tightened the mental screw, leaving many people grief-stricken, isolated, fearful and condemned to watching rolling daily death tolls in the media. Older people in care homes had no visitors for months; toddlers were deprived of critical social learning with children of their own age; and adolescents were forced to stay at home instead of exploring the boundaries of their physical and psychological world. And although middle-aged people were less affected in these ways, they too suffered.

“Alcohol use has gone right up, domestic abuse has gone up, so this kind of chronic stress on people affects the brain, your behaviour, your mood and probably your physical behaviour as well,” said Prof Sahakian.

No wonder people are not sleeping at night. Even when you sleep, you are not safe. I took a 10-minute power nap the other day and by the time I got up again, there were two new alerts on my set-to-silent phone: Joe Biden calls for Vladimir Putin to face war crimes trial over reported atrocities in Ukraine; and It’s ‘now or never’ if world is to stave off climate disaster, UN climate change body warns.

In March last year, the World Health Organization’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said the pandemic had caused more “mass trauma” than the second world war and warned that the mental health toll would last for many years. 

That was before the Delta variant. There were thousands of deaths to come. More grieving, more isolation, more fear of death, of long-term debilitating illness. More loneliness, more job losses, more financial headaches. More anguish over politicians who didn’t and don’t seem to care. For health workers, there was much more exhaustion. And it’s not over yet. A new variant, XE, has been identified in the UK, with early indications suggesting it could be 10% more transmissible than other Omicron mutations. 

But for a while last year, life looked as if it was returning to some kind of normal. Most restrictions were lifted here in the UK; we began to think about other news stories; we had time once again to worry about the climate, about devastating floods in Rio de Janeiro, and around Sydney, not to mention parties in Downing Street. 

But then Russian troops invaded Ukraine and the prospect of nuclear war loomed over our lives as we helplessly watched tragedy unfold on our screens in real time as real lives were smashed to smithereens. And it wasn’t just fear for others. The effects of the war are also rippling into homes across the world, pushing anxiety levels higher.

Everywhere is suffering from higher energy prices and the conflict in “the world’s breadbasket” is pushing up food prices across the world as vital exports of wheat, sunflower oil and other commodities grind to a halt, threatening millions of lives, livelihoods and possibly even political stability in fragile countries from Yemen to Ethiopia and from Iraq to Sudan.

Here in the UK, people are worrying about whether to “eat or heat” after a slew of tax and energy bill rises and with inflation running at around 6%. In a recent study, the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy found that 40% of the public feel anxious or nervous about paying their bills.

We are not alone. A study conducted in March for the American Psychological Association found that US stress levels were running alarmingly high because of Covid, inflation, money issues and the war in Ukraine.

Eighty-seven percent of those surveyed cited the rise in prices of everyday items due to inflation as a source of stress. Others included supply chain issues (81%); global uncertainty (81%), Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (80%); and potential retaliation from Russia such as nuclear threats (80%).

Prof Sahakian says the longer we stay at these peak levels of anxiety the more it will affect us long term, but she hopes for some kind of resolution in Ukraine and believes that technology and innovation will help us tackle the climate emergency. 

“I’m quite a positive person. I do feel that ultimately we will solve these major problems but we’ve been unlucky to have chronic stress. Everyone is pretty resilient and we can usually overcome a stressor even if it makes us sad for a period of time, but when you have so many in a row it becomes quite difficult.”

In the meantime, we must try to help ourselves. Don’t doom-scroll; limit your exposure to the news; beware of excessive empathy; exercise; focus on the beauty of nature; meditate or practise mindfulness; read a good book before bed (but nothing too gripping); watch a funny film; donate to charity or volunteer to fight the apathy caused by over-exposure to negative news. These may seem self-evident, but with health systems still overstretched many of us will have to deal with any mental health issues on our own for a while yet. 

It almost doesn’t bear thinking about the effect of this war on the people who have lived through more than a month of continuous shelling, who have seen relatives killed in the street or who have witnessed torture and mass killings. What has it done to children whose lives were so dramatically upended that they found themselves living in dark basements, or trying to escape the shelling by speeding down roads past burned-out cars and charred corpses?

“Some people have seen horrific things. They will have lost family members. It’s very difficult. Hopefully, they will be able to put it in a context where at least what they did (to survive) was successful and that should help them come to terms with it. It’s hard to imagine,” Prof Sahakian says. “They will need strong support psychologically and psychiatrically.”

If you want to do something positive right now, you could check out Sunflower Relief, a not-for-profit social enterprise working in Ukraine. 

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