Why Gen Z Has Been Hit Hard by Pandemic Stress

New research suggests that U.S. youth between the ages of 13 and 24 (also known as Generation Z) are being affected by pandemic stress more than other generations. Carlo Prearo/EyeEm/Getty Images
  • A new poll indicates that Gen Z has been hit hardest by pandemic stress.
  • Uncertainty and fear of the virus are among their top sources of stress.
  • They also felt stressed over their social lives, work, and school.
  • Experts say Gen Z is particularly affected because it is a time of life transitions.
  • Pandemic stress can be mitigated if people remain in tune with their emotions.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a stressful time for nearly everyone.

In addition to concerns about the coronavirus, people have also had to deal with additional worries about general health and the economy, as well as political and social unrest.

And, although this has affected us all to some degree, a new poll indicates that Gen Z — the generation of U.S. youth currently between the ages of 13 and 24 — has been hit particularly hard.

In fact, 35 percent of teens and young adults who took part in the MTV/AP-NORC Youth Culture Poll 2021 reported experiencing stress frequently.

Another 46 percent said they felt stressed sometimes.

They said that the pandemic has been a significant source of stress for them, interfering with their social lives, their education and careers, and their mental well-being.

In addition, 40 percent of respondents said that dating and romantic relationships has been more difficult during the pandemic.

They also reported problems when it came to friendships, with 45 percent of them saying that it was harder to maintain those relationships.

While 65 percent of Gen Z respondents said education is important to them, 46 percent said the pandemic had made it difficult to pursue their educational and career goals.

Respondents said that uncertainty about the pandemic (37 percent) and fear of infection (32 percent) were among their major sources of stress.

Personal relationships (38 percent), finances (37 percent), and body image (32 percent) also ranked high among their worries.

About half said it was difficult to have fun and maintain their mental health.

Why the pandemic is so stressful for Gen Z

Jennifer King, DSW, LISW, assistant professor and the co-director of the Center on Trauma and Adversity at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University, said that not all stress is bad.

“It’s what helps us learn and grow,” she said. “Our internal stress alarm rings any time we are going to do something new — like take a test, go on a date, or have a job interview.”

When stresses are small and predictable, our bodies can respond to the stress and then return to baseline quickly, she said.

However, when stress is intense, unpredictable, and prolonged, we can’t prepare for it and we can’t predict when it will end. This can lead to physical and mental health challenges like anxiety, feelings of helplessness or hopelessness, fatigue, insomnia, headaches, and other bodily discomforts.

“Clearly, when it comes to these two patterns of stress, pandemic-related stress is the latter,” she said.

As far as why this particular generation is so affected by pandemic stress?

Tonya Cross Hansel, PhD, LMSW, DSW, program director at Tulane University School of Social Work, said, “Adolescence and young adulthood are times of transition, so increased stress is nothing new.”

“However,” she explained, “it is the magnitude over the past couple of years and cumulative stressors that are potentially problematic.”

Although Hansel found it concerning that almost half of the youth surveyed have mental health concerns related to the pandemic, she said it could also be a positive developmental milestone if they’re in tune with their emotional health.

Reducing pandemic stress

In order to reduce pandemic stress and safeguard your mental health, Jennifer Wegmann, PhD, from the health and wellness studies department at Binghamton University, State University of New York, suggested several steps:

Validate your feelings and emotions

Wegmann said it is essential to manage your emotions so that negative thoughts do not take over and keep you stuck in an unhealthy place. She recommends tapping into your emotional intelligence. “It’s about understanding, processing, and managing the impact of emotions,” she explained.

Employ empathy

“Remember, we are going through this together,” said Wegmann, “and putting ourselves in others’ shoes, aka being empathetic, will help us react in a way that is reasonable, caring, and compassionate. For example, not hoarding food and toilet paper, but rather buying what is reasonable for our families and us because we understand others are in need too.”

Stop dwelling on what has been lost

Wegmann suggests instead shifting your focus to what remains.

“It takes a lot of energy and personal resources to live in the past,” she explained, “and it tunnels our vision so we cannot see what is here and now.”

Live in the now

“Many people are projecting and trying to predict the future,” said Wegmann. “That is impossible, and it creates fear and anxiety.”

Practice gratitude

Living in the now will allow you to experience the little things in life that you can be truly grateful for, she said.

This could include things like a sunrise or sunset, a walk or run outside in the fresh air, your health, or an act of love or kindness.

Connect with others

“Research has shown over and over again that connecting socially is one of the most effective ways to manage stress and anxiety,” said Wegmann. “This holds true even when you connect over FaceTime, Zoom, or Facebook Messenger,” she added.

Communicate what you need

Effectively communicating what you need will allow others to know how to help you, said Wegmann.

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