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Up Close and Personal With the Millennial Stress Generation

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Stress is an underlying risk factor for most chronic diseases in the Western world. When we feel stressed, we behave from the fight-or-flight response rather than our higher brain. In fight-or-flight, stress hormones are elevated, and when stress becomes chronic, stress hormones are less likely to fall even after the immediate stress passes. In fight-or-flight, we are more likely to behave in unhealthy ways to medicate how we feel. We are more likely reach for unhealthy comfort foods, alcohol or drugs to numb our feelings, or engage in activities that feel soothing such as video games, television or shopping. All of these behaviors have a temporarily soothing effect on the feelings of stress, but these they can lead to worse problems in the long run and ultimately increase stress.

Current statistics show that in the last year, the millennial generation (ages 18-33) reports the highest levels of stress compared to Generation Xers (34-47), the baby boomers (48-66) or the Matures (67 or older). One would think that with all the conveniences and perks of modern living that were designed to make our lives easier, stress levels would decline, but the data shows the opposite.

I am a baby boomer. I am also a mother and a physician whose children and patients belong to the millennial generation. In an effort to help this generation heal stress, I have asked my children and hundreds of my patients what their greatest stressors are. Understanding the challenges of this generation is the first step in helping them find solutions for stress. I believe that our baby boomer generation has a responsibility to help the millennials heal. Some of their stressors are a result of unresolved issues from our generation, and some are a result of the high-speed world that we have created and now live in.

Some of the key stressors are:

1. Financial. The cost of living for millennials is high, with educational expenses being higher than ever before, leaving them with deeper debt. The combination of the debt load and a high unemployment rate results in a high degree of stress.

2. They feel greater psychosocial pressure to become independent faster. Their generation has lower rates of early pregnancy, but higher rates of stress.

3. Our current society has a high percentage of broken families, leaving the millennials with less foundational solidity and cohesion. They express feelings of loneliness and isolation despite the internet and telecommunication use.

4. Many millennials experience difficulty trusting each other given the absence of consistent role models for commitment and fidelity. Monogamy is rare amongst millennials. The normalization of dysfunction on television furthers and reinforces these problems.

5. In my professional experience, baby boomer parents are more likely to "peerize" with millennials rather than act in a parental manner, placing pressures on the children to find a substitute for the lack of parenting. They use what the media normalizes for guidance.

6. Given the breakdown of the educational system and its lack of value of creativity and imagination, millennials feel uninspired and lack focus around career goals causing added stress.

Given these challenges, a disturbing statistic shows that only 17 percent of millennials feel supported by their health care providers in their stress management efforts.

These issues that the millennials are facing raise questions for the role that baby boomers can play to help them. Ironically, in my experience, the solution that has the greatest effect in alleviating their stress is communication and presence. Talking with them about their challenges and their aspirations and understanding what supports them is deeply healing for them. The millenniums want to be witnessed. They want to feel like they matter. We need to be aware that in a decade, this generation will lead our world. We must remember that we are their mentors. Whether we live authentically or not has a huge impact on their well-being. Living from the purity of a meaningful life is our current task. I believe that living from a place of understanding, openness and compassion for the millenniums will do more to alleviate their stress than any other solution. Humans have always healed in community. We need to break our silence and heal our isolation and connect with intention to support this generation. This may be the most effective solution for them. In the final analysis, how we matter to each other always heals us.

For more by Rose Kumar, M.D., click here.

For more on stress, click here.