Our cleaning lady walked in the other day, gave notice and burst into tears. She realized she needs to be home in the afternoons for her two tweens as her eighth-grade son’s doctor informed her that her son suffers from stress and anxiety.
My most recent clients, parents of high school aged children, and a parent of an elementary school child sought me out because their children are experiencing existential angst, anxiety and depression.
Current adult clients mention fears of failure, concerns of workplace output, tenuous professional and personal relationships, and the desire to ‘find their place.’
I asked a pediatrician-friend the other day whether she is seeing an uptick in anxiety and depression amongst her patients. To her affirmative answer I noted that today’s widespread anxiety seems to be yesterday’s proliferate ADHD diagnosis.
What is happening?
Earlier this year news reports came out stating that teen sex rates were down and have been steadily declining for the past two years (“Fewer Teens Are Having Sex as Declines in Risky Behavior Continues,” Washington Post, January 5, 2018). The reports attribute this of course, to better more accurate information and intervention, but I see this trend as related to the overall increase in anxiety. No, I’m not saying that fear of disease or unwanted pregnancy drives this downturn. Rather, the trend I see, is a rampant disconnectedness; relationships replaced and negotiated by screens; conversations supplanted by text messages, the sterility of emotionless missives when what people need most right now is to connect. This disconnect in turn leads to anxiety and depression.
All sorts of articles, blogs and resources cross my desk and after deleting one as silly, I resurrected it as I began contemplating the relevance between social disconnection and anxiety. A recent blogger looked for what she called “bizarre” New Year resolutions and found one in a 2016 New York Times piece “In the New Year, More Cuddling” (Dec. 30, 2016). The author finds herself considering attending a ‘cuddle party’ and states “I never thought I would be here, in this place, at this time in my life. The fear that I am in some way defective has become harder to stave off each year.” As she considers her palpable loneliness she assesses that “[o]ver the years, almost without noticing, I had become less available, less accessible, walling off my heart brick by brick.”
Do we do this to ourselves or is it done to us?
Yes, and yes.
The author of the “Cuddling” piece seems to say that she pulled back, that she put herself out there with other human beings less and less. Perhaps she replaced her needs with something requiring less maintenance, something that gave her some positive emotional feedback but didn’t require so much effort on her part. Screens are sexy – they captivate us with the capability to make us laugh, cry, think, and seductively suck us in. They are the perfect mistress. No strings attached. Needing nothing from us. There whenever we want, giving us whatever we want. But as humans we must also give for receiving to be truly fulfilling. Companionship, compassion, and yes – cuddling (emotional and physical) – are all necessary to the human condition.
So, what is happening with my younger and older clients?
One more story. Recently I received information that my thyroid hormone levels are slightly suppressed. Pretty typical for a woman my age. Not really a concern medically, but for me personally it was a sign for the first time of moving into middle age. My physician was anything but compassionate. In fact, it took two phone calls for her to get back to me and then as she did she actually said the words “we have a lot of patients in this practice, we cannot call each one.” It was then that I realized she wasn’t seeing me in her office as we frequently say about doctor visits (“I’m seeing my doctor today”), she was meeting me and assessing my medical data to evaluate what was relevant and worthy of her time. My doctor turned into a computer. Unfeeling, cold, unable to comprehend my personal reality. Admittedly physicians these days are under the thumb of insurance companies and need a practice bursting with patients to meet their bottom lines. But still, the sterile feeling of being a number crunched in order to assess the need for more or less attention, I will not stand for.
My experience reminded me of the twice exceptional (gifted with a learning difference) student’s plight. Neither the most brilliant nor the neediest, and therefore left in the middle. Statistically not worthy of extra attention because the deficit doesn’t affect the overall package to warrant intervention or even attention. But the 2e person intuits they can strive for greater with the right support. They know they aren’t being seen. They FEEL there could be more; more interesting information, more challenging work, more meaningful interactions.
In the case of my client’s children, my housekeeper’s child, adult clients, people seeking out touch, those whose relationship void leads to loneliness – they are all saying the same thing – see me, touch me, know me, show me I am worthy of attention. In a world of sterile screens, teachers, parents, employers, friends, family, associates have the responsibility and also the enormous power to make a difference; to slow down, to look their students, children, partners, employees, spouses in the eyes, to be the anti-screen and do all the things a screen can’t do. Touch. Reflect. Acknowledge. Validate. Share an emotional cuddle by spooning together each other’s thoughts and feelings. Gently hold their ideas and what is important to them in your hands. Respond so they feel their own self is important – more important than a screen – and give them what only humans can give one another, the feeling of being seen. This is a revolution that must happen. Turning our backs on screens as we roll over in our thoughts and shift our position to envelop the humans in our orbit. Then and only then will we have a chance for this wave of anxiety and depression to subside.