Anxiety and Gen Z: Longing for Deep Peace

“So, do you still struggle with anxiety?” asked one of my high school seniors during Sunday school a couple months ago.

I’d just finished sharing a little bit of my testimony with the students to kick off the fall semester together, and I’d invited questions from the group. This particular student had been in attendance for the workshop on anxiety I led for the group back in the spring. She’d shared how much my anxiety devotional had meant to her. And I knew she struggled severely with anxiety.

“Yeah, I sure do,” I responded. “You’d think I’d have figured out this anxiety thing with all the research, the writing, and the counseling degree, wouldn’t you? But it’s still a part of my life. And I don’t think it’s always a bad thing. My relationship with anxiety has changed over the years. But I still get nervous when I talk in front of people, for instance.”

As Kyle Richter and Patrick Miller’s article for TGC points out, Gen Z longs for honesty, vulnerability, and authenticity in its leadership (and don’t we all?). They are perhaps more attuned to fauxnerability, empty words, and hyper-spiritualization than any preceding generation. They’ve experienced a lifetime of exposure to influencers by the time they’re upperclassmen. They long for someone to be trustworthy and candid with them. 

In it Together 

One of the ways we can understand anxiety is as an invitation to connection, to leaning into relationship with God, others, and creation. Often we experience anxiety as a symptom of disconnection from rich, supportive, loving relationship.

Anxiety can also be a signal that we’re about to do something that matters to us (like play in an important game or ask someone out). It can also be a sign that some sort of threat (internal or external) has caused us to disconnect from the present and has ushered in the white noise-like experience of worry. This is an automatic reaction; it isn’t something we choose. Our logical, rational, volitional thinking brain (our prefrontal cortex) goes offline, and our survival brain (the amygdala) takes over.

This isn’t pleasant for anyone. And if you’re human, you will have this experience at some point in your life, because anxiety can be as adaptive (healthy, helpful) as it can be maladaptive (unhelpful, counterproductive). For instance, game time nerves can get us pumped and ready to go. Yet pervasive, mind-looping apprehension can paralyze and silence us.  

So what if as youth leaders and parents, we allowed our own mixed experience with anxiety to be a place of connection with our students? Let’s consider how we can give them a peek into our unfolding process of longing for peace.

First of all, we can assure our students that we are receiving the prayer and support we need to live in the now-and-not-yet (so that they don’t take on the burden of our anxiety). Then we can share what it looks like to come to Jesus over and over with our worries, seeking to “[not] be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let [our] requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:6).

We can share with students the comforting words with which Jesus has met us in our own times of struggle (E.g. “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

We can also invite students to join us in practicing mindful, embodied ways of prayer and worship that allow us to calm our nervous systems together (co-regulate) as we take refuge in the Lord by tasting and seeing that he is good (Ps. 34:8).

Leading as Humans

Confession: I really love to know things. It feels good to understand something, bringing it under the dominion of my mind. And knowledge is not a bad thing, but it also isn’t ultimate. It can’t provide the type of peace that Jesus promises us in himself.

We live in a time in which we have abundant access to knowledge. We don’t need to spend half a second longer than desired before Googling the answer to our questions. Simultaneously, we’re flooded with an enormous amount of data that needs to be sifted through. It’s overwhelming, to say the least.

But Google cannot answer our soul longings for purpose, identity, belonging, and true satisfaction. Knowledge cannot save us. And I believe our students know that.

What a relief it can be to confess our limits and to point to the one who created us to be creatures, not omniscient gods! We might confess to our student, “Here are the ways I looked to social media to comfort my fearful heart this week, and here’s how it left me high and dry.” And we might follow up with, “Here are the ways God met me in my knowledge-seeking to remind me he is so much more than a Tik Tok therapist!” 

It can be extremely helpful to allow our students to learn discernment alongside us. We are all figuring out what it means to be human.

Jesus reveals what humankind is meant to be. He is the truest picture of God’s design for human beings that we have. In him we see a man who is dependent on the Father (John 5:19), who spends time praying and discerning (Luke 6:12), and who honors his limits as a man while simultaneously asking for God to work (Luke 22:42). Slowing down and zooming in on the ways Jesus interacted can be a beautiful corrective to a disembodied universe of data.

As adults, we have both stories of God’s faithfulness in our lives and stories of mystery that are yet to be worked out. Allowing students to see us in our own dependence on Jesus can be a profoundly powerful witness. We must learn to answer some of their hard questions honestly with, “I don’t know the answer to that, but I’d be glad to explore it with you and to pray with you.” 

Living in the Unfinished

Social media often (implicitly) tells the story that everyone is living their best lives now. The underlying message we regularly take in is: there is something wrong with you if you’re not happy. 

For the adolescent brain that has an extra level of desiring to belong, it’s particularly painful to feel like you’re on the outside of “the good life.” 

Those of us with a little more life experience (and prefrontal cortex functioning) know that this vision of the “good life” is a literal impossibility. But for our students, the takeaway is: there’s something wrong with me if I’m not feeling good all the time. 

Our students need a better story. They need the Christian story, which is one they don’t have to create, invent, maintain, or feel their way into. It is the true story of a living God who meets them where they are, empathizes with them, and offers them real rest in himself (Matt. 11:28). It’s a story that provides comfort, meaning, and hope for their anxiety. It doesn’t demand that they feel good all the time.

This story is currently unfolding as we await the return of Jesus. We are a people who live in waiting, in tension, and with longing for everything to be made right. It is helpful to name these unfinished places in ourselves and in this world that will one day be redeemed. 

This means it is important to both validate the discomfort of anxiety for our students and remind them it doesn’t have the final say over their lives. Jesus has the final say. In light of this, we need to first bless our students’ desire for relief and healing because that very desire points them forward to the restoration of all things through Christ, which is a guarantee.

Living in the now-and-not yet of the kingdom of God is hard. It’s also exciting, as it’s dependent on the daily bread of life showing up to offer grace for the way. 

An Invitation

Anxiety is an invitation to connection with this daily bread, with the body of Christ, and with the lovely creation God has given to reveal his goodness to us. So let’s invite our students to see what following Jesus looks like in all of its honest, messy, beautiful glory. Let’s invite them to see our daily dependence on the Lord as we hold out the Word of life, trusting he will meet us at every step. Our longing for him to work is often the very place where the Spirit is at work. That vulnerable place can facilitate powerful connection with our anxious students.

Liz Edrington recently won TGC’s 2023 Book Award for Bible Study and Devotional Literature for her book Anxiety: Finding the Better Story: A 31-day Devotional for Teenagers.

Rooted offers mentoring cohorts for youth ministers and family ministers looking for more encouragement and equipping. Consider joining our next round of groups starting in January 2024.

Liz Edrington serves as the Fellowship Groups and Young Adults Director at North Shore Fellowship in Chattanooga, TN. She received her M.A. in Counseling from Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, FL, and she has worked with students in one form or another since 2002. She is an emeritus member of the Rooted steering committee, and she's the author of a 31-day devotional for teenagers called Anxiety: Finding the Better Story (P&R Publishing, 2023). Pickled things delight her, as does her snuggle beast, Bella the Dog.

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