Rant 39 April 2007: Kids these days

I’ve been teaching university undergraduates for nearly ten years now. (I shudder to type that.) Lately, it’s struck me that the kids these days seem a little bit… different… than I remember. They’re tense, depressed, worried about the world and their place in it, and riddled with mental and physical ailments. Oh sure, there was always that one Lisa Simpson keener who’d flip out if they got a B+, but in the last couple of years I seem to have noticed the vibe changing.

Today I was on the horn with my old lady, a high school principal, and I got to thinking that if anyone knows the minds of younguns, it’s someone who’s been in the business of corralling adolescents for decades.

“Mom,” I asked, “Do you notice kids in your school being more… anxious?”

“Oh yes,” she said, “We’re having terrible problems.”

Great. Well, at least I know that more of the same is coming down the pike.

I’m not an overly nurturing sort but in the last while I’ve been tempted to make the kids a nice pot of soup, knit them all sweaters, and give them big hugs. They seem so much more resilient in some ways, but in other ways so fragile.

What’s causing this? I could opine that the world is a scarier place but it’s hard to imagine a time when the world hasn’t been a scary place – indeed, the world is pants-crappingly frightening for the world’s population still, even folks in North America who happen to have gotten the short economic and social sticks. Why are the wee ones wigging out?

Some time ago, someone sent me a link to a stress test. The little test asked me to reflect on all the events of the last year. Without paying too much attention, I just ticked off everything that came to mind. Tra la la, house purchase, family deaths, major work upheaval, la la la ticky ticky.

Then I clicked “Total”. According to the program, a score of 0-149 was low stress; 150-299 medium stress; and 300 and over, high.

I scored 517.

Holy shit.

Should I be dead by now?

As it turns out, last year was the perfect storm of life events for me. (On the other hand, I could argue that like ripping off a bandaid, if one puts all of one’s trauma into a single year, perhaps it gets it all over with as soon as possible.)

Somehow I survived with sanity and health intact. I now find myself in Q2 of 2007 still mentally balanced, lean and fit, and having responsibility for no major homicides. What’s my secret? No, it’s not better living through chemistry (although I do recommend investing in a good quality sleeping pill occasionally if you don’t want to go mental from stress-related insomnia). It wasn’t daily affirmations, channeling my purple chakra or any of that woo-woo. Bitch please, that positive thinking shit went out the window with my first anxiety attack.

What was absolutely crucial for surviving it was good exercise and nutrition habits. Instead of the ballast that is jettisoned, activity and diet should be like life vests that keep us afloat when the waters get rough. They permit us to survive it as well as possible. We often can’t control external events but we can control, to some degree, our responses to them.

Last year, right at this time, I experienced what I initially thought was hyperthyroidism, but what turned out to be garden variety anxiety. I would wake up at 4 am with my heart rate over 100. It felt like my skin was vibrating off my body. Appetite and sleep habits were totally out of whack.

I learned to manage it thus with a combination of training and relaxation strategies:

  1. When I woke up in the darkened dawn almost literally leaping out of bed, I used that energy to fuel my training sessions. I went out and ran intervals, or hit the gym. I found that intense workouts lasting about
    30 min gave me enough of an endorphin rush to temporarily calm me down. When I felt the most energetic, I trained.
  2. I also incorporated longer lower intensity workouts along the lines of “walking meditation”. where the body is given a basic task to perform so that the mind can be occupied with other things. Here I
    simply walked or cycled for long distances using that time to be mindful of what my body was experiencing and attempt to digest the things I was anxious about.
  3. Daily yoga, making sure to focus on breathing and conscious performance of poses.
  4. Relaxation exercises: deep breathing, visualization (a la sports visualization), etc.
  5. Outward-aggressive training like boxing was an effective strategy for releasing the extra energy outwards, rather than letting it accumulate inside. I personally feel it is physically impossible to be
    stressed out after going nuts on a heavy bag for an hour.

What I also applied to this problem was the insight gained from training and previous injuries: namely that pain or other sensations are not “reality”. When you do your first set of squats, or your first set of long kettlebell swings, or your first sprint workout, etc. you think you are going to die. You eventually come to realize that you are not literally going to die, you just think you are (or you just want to at that second, to end the unpleasantness). When you have referred pain you come to realize that the pain is simply a signal that may or may not identify actual damage (if long term, there is a good chance that pain is mostly a “body memory”). When you are reducing calories sensibly you may feel hungry but you are not actually starving.

In other words, as part of intense training and other body-discipline projects, you begin to dissociate sensations and symptoms from “reality” and understand that the body’s language may lead you to conclusions that aren’t always “true”. This insight can then be applied to understanding your mental state when feeling anxious. You can observe your symptoms without judgement and attempt to alleviate them with the knowledge that you do not need to respond to them. What they are telling you is out of proportion to the stimulus.

Finally, as part of my strategy, I gobbled any colourful plant product I could lay my hands on. I knew if I started stress eating or what the Germans call Kummerspeck (grief bacon), I’d be screwed and wouldn’t stop till I had a chicken wing lodged in my aorta.

I knew that this course of action that prioritized exercise and nutrition above nearly all else was the only thing standing between me and making the six o’clock news (and not for winning the spelling bee).

Back to the kids.

Time use data suggests that people have less time for family and friends than in the past. Commutes are longer and more frantic. Employer demands are more stringent; expectations of young people are higher and their progress required to be more rapid. Nutrition quality is poor and daily, routine activity levels are at all-time lows. In recent years, health organizations have begun to suggest that for the first time in human history young people will not have longer lifespans than their parents. This weekend I read an article in the Globe and Mail about play dates and the complex etiquette and scheduling that surrounds these rather grotesque bourgeois rituals. When I was a child a play date was my mother growling, “Turn off that TeeVee and get outside! Also we need milk from the store so ride your bike down there and take your sister with you!!” Pretty fancy, but what can I say, I was born with a wooden spoon in my mouth.

Modern life presents us with new challenges. Our ancestors faced all kinds of stress. They survived. They also died young. So how can we learn and adapt?