It’s not easy being a millennial. According to a 2015 survey of 6,000 adults, conducted by the American Psychological Association, people between ages 18 to 34 make up the most stressed-out generation compared to all other age groups. Not to get morbid about it, but suicide rates for this age group have increased by 27 percent between 2000 and 2015.
What’s making them so upset? For one, finding (and keeping) a good job that’s both financially and emotionally rewarding has never been more challenging. This problem is not exclusive to millennials, but it is particularly hard for those who grew up with smartphones as a major part of their everyday life. As a result of their technology dependency, research suggests these folks are more isolated, physically disconnected (although virtually connected) and, therefore, more depressed than any generation prior. It’s a lot pressure to handle on your own.
My new book, What Now? Meditation for Your Twenties and Beyond, released this November, calls on Buddhist and mindfulness wisdom to help young people (and really, anyone) not only cope, but thrive in the stressful conditions of modern day life. If you’ve been feeling stressed, anxious, and overwhelmed, here are five ways meditation can alleviate the pressure so that you can get back to living a happy, healthy life.
1. Slow your scroll.
Millennials consume content from the moment they wake up til they conk out after a night of binge-watching Netflix. One study puts media consumption for people ages 18 to 35 at 18 hours per day. Living in this non-stop information age can lead to real-life consequences, such as feeling lonely and angry. All the time.
Meditation is becoming an essential tool for regulating the ingestion of data—not by “zoning out,” but rather by zoning into your own heart, mind, and life happening in the moment. There is a zen saying: “A painting of a rice cake cannot satisfy hunger.” In today’s parlance that might be translated to: “An amazingly-filtered Insta photo of the lunch you ate won’t make you feel less empty.”
Taking a time-out to meditate can help you remember what is important. It can imbue your every day with color and meaning, just by helping you be present for it. When you eat your lunch, you taste your lunch. When you walk down the hallway, you feel your footsteps. While the pace of the modern living doesn’t seem to be slowing down, meditation can assist you in reclaiming your time and your life in the midst of the madness.
2. Go easy on the comparisons.
You roll out of bed on a Saturday morning, throw on comfy, worn-in sweats, and open Instagram. Suddenly, you are bombarded by gorgeous people who woke up hours earlier than you to do headstands in sexy lycra clothing…at sunrise…in the mountains of Vermont. Why is everyone living their best life, but you?
Buddhism calls this train of thought “comparing mind.” Not only is it toxic and painful, it seems to be an inevitable byproduct of our social media culture. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology suggests that people feel more depressed after spending a long time on Facebook, specifically because they couldn’t help comparing themselves to others. Comparing mind starts from a shaky, insecure place, asking the question, “Am I love-able? Am I worthy?” and then looks outside of yourself to find out the answer.
The problem is, no matter how much work, effort, and energy you put into our own so-called “brand,” someone is always better looking, more successful, has more followers, etc. When you realize you are swimming in a sea of comparisons—whether you are winning or losing in this particular go-around—you can take a pause and a breath. Instead, ask yourself, “What if I am really worthy just as I am, right now?” When you believe our own unique worth and interconnections with all life on this planet, comparing yourself to anyone else makes no sense at all.
3. Flip the script on your anxieties and fears.
During my teens and early twenties, I walked around with a knot of fear in my stomach nearly all of the time. I was anxious about small things, such as doing well in school, talking to crushes—you know, the usual. On a much deeper level, however, I was existentially anxious. I was afraid of dying. I was afraid of never finding love or purpose. For young people today, anxiety seems to only have gotten worse.
Recent surveys of college students by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA point to increases in anxiety levels from 50 percent in 2011 to 62 percent in 2016. Other research suggests young people now are suffering from anxiety at levels higher than any other generation in the last 80 years. Whether a result of the aforementioned increases in phone usage (leading to greater isolation and social media comparisons), the pressures of perfection nurtured in high school and college, or the strain of living under a political administration of which you might disapprove (more on that soon), the toll that such anxiety can take is real.
Each time you try and push away your fear, it can come back with a vengeance, and lead to more suffering. When you are open to it—feeling its movements in the body, noticing what is underneath—fear has a lot to teach you. Sometimes, it is stored trauma (if you burned your hand in a fire, it makes sense to be fearful of fires). Other times, it is the flip side of a desire (“what if I never meet a partner” can be translated to “I want to meet someone so very much”). Meditation can help you work with fear by learning to understand it, process it in the body, and make friends with it, rather than try to repress or outrun it.
4. Use the power of the pause.
Too often, your romantic relationships may be derailed by impulsive behavior. You see a text message on your partner’s phone that looks suspicious and immediately fly into a jealous rage, leading them to become defensive and both of you to retreat into our separate spheres of hurt and anger. Meditation practice can help you notice your emotions before acting on them. Those extra few seconds of deep breaths might mean the difference between calmly asking your partner, “What are you talking about with this other person?” and throwing the phone at their head.
Mindfulness also encourages practitioners to be more curious about emotional states. You can ask yourself what exactly is painful about that text message before you act from that pain. Is it an old wound? Is it a projection of your worst fears about yourself? That kind of curiosity will help you to be less reactive and, ultimately, make it more likely for you to be closer and more intimate with your partner as you see the difference between your ideas about them and who they really are.
5. Stand in solidarity to transform the world.
These are stressful times, politically, for most millennials, with 64 percent disapproving of the Trump administration, according to a recent NBC news poll. Those who find themselves as one of the many targets of this administration’s policies (women, Muslims, African-Americans, trans and LGBQ folks, and sadly, so many more) may feel the fight for change is particularly exhausting and disheartening on a daily basis.
On a purely physical level, meditation is a restorative, healing practice that so many badly need. But the benefits go much deeper. Meditation can allow you to see the ways you have internalized oppression and the ways you have perpetuated suffering—be it intentionally or unintentionally, individually, or as a society. Meditation can help you withstand these difficult truths and find wise, compassionate, and brave responses. Not just because it is the right thing to do, but because all of our liberation is bound up together.
When we understand that our well-being and the well-being of others (as in everyone else) is all connected, then we can begin to effect positive change from a place of love rather than opposition. That doesn’t mean we don’t feel anger or shouldn’t fight oppressive policies with all of our strength. On the contrary, we must engage in that struggle as there is no escaping the “single garment of destiny” in which we are all tied, as Martin Luther King Jr. once wrote. But when we see our “enemies” as human beings, connected to us, whether we like it or not, we can’t fight in quite the same way. We can’t de-humanize members of our community and write them off as “other.” We need to make room for everyone in our vision of justice. The world needs this. The world needs you.
By Yael Shy