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Millennials Are More Prone To Anxiety, Says A Neuroscientist: Here's Why 

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Image by JEREMY PAWLOWSKI / Stocksy
March 6, 2021

It's no secret we're facing a global mental health crisis, one that was only exacerbated by the pandemic. And while everyone should make mental health a priority, no matter your age, our younger generations have experienced some significant declines: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)1, 1 in 4 young adults (ages 18 to 24) seriously contemplated suicide during the pandemic.

However, as communication pathologist and cognitive neuroscientist Caroline Leaf, Ph.D., shares on the mindbodygreen podcast, it's millennials—those born from 1981 to 1996—whose brains may actually be more prone to anxiety.

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In fact, she conducted a clinical trial and found that millennial participants' brains looked physically older: "Some of the millennials that came in had biological ages that were sometimes 30 to 40 years older than their actual age," she says. "So they were sitting there as a 25- to 35-year-old, but their bodies physically were on a level of a 60-, 65-, or 70-year-old."

Why, though, are millennials facing these drastic changes? Leaf explains below.

Why millennials are more prone to anxiety.

According to Leaf, the reason lies in their ability to contextualize the future. What does this mean? Well, the millennial age group is in a unique time of their lives where they're just starting to understand the weight of the future—and they start to realize that the elusive "future" has an end date.

"When you're 18 to 24 and younger, death and those kinds of things in the future seem like it's not very tangible," Leaf says. "But your millennials can see the future as more tangible—so it's kind of there, but they can't see their way through."

In other words: The future seems palpable, but they're not exactly sure how they're going to get there—and that chronic uncertainty can leave tons of open space for anxiety to creep through.

She saw this process firsthand in her research: As soon as millennial participants were diagnosed with clinical anxiety disorder, energy immediately dropped in the front of their brains. "When your energy drops in the front of your brain, you have less blood flow, less oxygen. You can literally get little holes in your brain, and then those brainwaves don't flow like they should," Leaf explains. "So your cognitive flexibility—your ability to introspect, which we need to access in order to make sense of life—starts going away." And, thus, your ability to contextualize the future becomes compromised.

What can we do about it?

If you are experiencing anxiety (millennial or not), Leaf says that you do have the ability to change your brain—a process called neuroplasticity—with mind-management techniques. "Some of our participants who were [suffering from depression] had totally flat, blue brains at the beginning of the study, which means very low [brain waves], like a flat line in the sea," she notes. "And once they had my management, the brain had gone gray within three weeks, which means that the waves were flowing properly. And by six to nine weeks, it was sustainable."

Her full five-step brain-building exercise can be found here, but we've included a summary below:

  1. The first step is gathering a full awareness of what you experience. This includes taking note of everything you think and feel. So when you're feeling anxiety, what specific emotions are brought up? How do you physically feel?
  2. The next step involves reflecting on why you experience anxiety around certain objectives. For example, do any limiting thoughts tend to emerge when you think about your goals?
  3. The third step is to write down—by hand—what's on your mind to allow your thoughts to come out, instead of being suppressed. 
  4. The fourth step is to recontextualize what you've written down in a way that affirms your personal power. This could mean viewing your thoughts and experiences as aspects of yourself that have strengthened you.
  5. The fifth and final step is called active reach. This could mean coming up with an action plan when you experience anxious thoughts or a planned practice that you complete at predetermined intervals throughout the day.
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This is a simplified version of the full explanation, so be sure to check it out for the complete instructions. It's important to note, too, that these exercises take time. Give yourself space to experience them and all that they bring up—Leaf notes that full neuroplasticity occurs after 63 days.

The takeaway.

Caring for your mental health is incredibly important, and it can be both challenging and highly rewarding. Please remember that you are not alone and that help is available if you need it, and perhaps try Leaf's techniques if you're looking for ways to help manage those feelings.

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