I’ve heard from many Gen Zers that the worst thing COVID-19 did for them was amp up the uncertainty just as they were entering the new world of adulthood. Most of us, as human instinct dictates, abhor chaos and prefer order. But if chaos is a natural part of life, then we owe it to ourselves to create a game plan for managing it properly. In today’s landscape, this mindset has never been more critical.
To be fair, many people—not just Gen Z—reacted negatively to the upheaval caused by the pandemic. Imagine those who thought they had created relatively stable lives for themselves, just to lose their hard-earned job or mortgage overnight. It’s a harsh reality check when you realize that the certainty you created for yourself was in fact nothing more than a thin bubble that could be easily popped by external forces.
For Gen Zers, who were either finishing high school, heading to college, or entering the workforce at this time, the pandemic exacerbated the uncertainty that was already inherent in this life phase. To make matters worse, no other generation has been so constantly ambushed by social media and the 24-hour news cycle, making Gen Z acutely aware of all the woes and suffering in the world. If the world seems like a constantly crappy place, then you’re probably going to feel crappy about your own life, too.
Statistics unequivocally show that Gen Z is psychologically struggling, with mental health problems soaring since the onset of the pandemic. According to the Mayo Clinic, in 2022 approximately 44% of American college students reported having symptoms of depression and anxiety—with suicide the third-leading cause of death for this demographic. More than two in five of the country’s 68 million Gen Zers have a clinically-diagnosed mental health condition and are two times more likely than millennials or Gen Xers to report struggling with daily emotional distress.
Even in more stable times, we all need a little guidance when coming out into the adult world. Gen Z is no different. But with depression and anxiety skyrocketing, the best remedy may be educating this generation with a mental toolkit that boosts resiliency and confidence in oneself. Maybe the best remedy to feeling out of control is to actively bring back a sense of control into our lives.
So, we have to ask ourselves an important question: How do we move forward in this environment of uncertainty? Here are some rules I’d like to propose that I’ve put to the test in my own tumultuous twenties:
RULE #1 – Recognize what you can’t control and accept it.
Think of the amount of emotional energy you have every day as a pie; you only have so many slices you can cut off and give away before you tin is left empty. So, use your pie judiciously. Be honest with yourself about the things you can’t control and then discipline your mind to let them go. There’s no point wasting energy on the things that don’t deserve your energy.
Read more from my recent article published in Man & Culture Magazine:“Generation Z Needs Mental Toughness to Survive”
RULE #2 – Recognize what you can control and then take extreme ownership.
As for the things you can control, go to the extreme. “Extreme ownership” is a term coined by ex-Navy SEALs Jocko Willink and Leif Babin that denotes the practice of taking responsibility for everything in your world, with gusto. It means taking responsibility for your own actions, for your own happiness, for your career, your team, your projects—with no excuses. It means pursuing the things you care about in life as proactively as possible, without the expectation that someone will step in and do it for you.
This mindset is incredibly empowering. It will also help you focus your mind away from chaos and uncertainty in a way that quells your nerves. These actions may be little things, like faithfully sticking to a morning gym routine, but they are the things that you can master and will motivate you to keep achieving the great things that are in your control.
Read more from my blog: “What I Learned About ‘Extreme Ownership’ From the U.S. Navy SEALs and Rabbi Sacks”
RULE #3 – Structure your life with a proper value system. Take a moment to consider which values you want to consciously drive your actions. A good value system helps you navigate the complexities of life and set boundaries. If you want to focus on altruism, for example, make time in your schedule to volunteer. If you’re trying to improve in tolerance, spend time with a diversity of people, including the people who don’t necessarily think like you, and become a better listener.
Sometimes rules can seem demanding, but they also provide a higher ideal to pursue, which helps you structure (and therefore bring more control) into your life. If you want to stretch yourself beyond the boundaries of your current self, carefully choose a moral roadmap and an ideal to pursue. The pursuit itself will make you a more mature person and fill your life with meaning.
RULE #4 – Be brutal about your time.
Don’t take time for granted. Treat it like a dinner plate and fill it up with the most nutrient-dense items you can find—and I mean fill it up. Fill your schedule with interesting classes, exciting career development opportunities, quality time with friends, working out at the gym, volunteering, and so on.
You’d be surprised to find that the more you’re doing with your hands, the less time you have to focus on the anxiety or depression roiling around in your brain. As a former sufferer of an anxiety disorder, I can attest to this strategy.
If making a list and checking off each item everyday helps you feel accomplished, then go for it. (I have a friend who loves making and checking off these lists so much that she even includes “brush my teeth” on this list. Kind of ridiculous, kind of adorable.) Filling your life with the things that matter means less time to wallow in the things that aren’t worth your energy.
RULE #5 – Love yourself the way you would love your best friend.
According to Erich Fromm, one of my favorite psychoanalysts/philosophers, “love of self” is the foundation we need in order to most effectively love those around us. Proper self-love forms not only the basis of a healthy individual, but a better society.
“Love of others and love of ourselves are not alternatives,” writes Fromm, in his short masterpiece The Art of Loving. “On the contrary, an attitude of love towards themselves will be found in all those who are capable of loving others.” Meaning, love of self and love of others are not mutually exclusive, but co-existent.
To clarify, the mature art of loving is not based on sentimental notions of romance, but the practice of four essential elements: care, responsibility, respect, and knowledge. If we give this to ourselves and we give this to others, we will have healthier relationships with our family, our friends, our romantic partners, even our coworkers.
It’s no secret that poor or non-existent relationships exacerbate loneliness, anxiety, and depression. By contrast, healthy relationships with ourselves and with others boost our ability to live better lives and respond with more resilience to the tumult in our world.
To summarize, we all need a mental game plan to face chaos with resilience and a growth mindset. Recognize what you can and can’t control. Learn when to let go and when to pursue a goal with all your intensity. Search out a wise and well-structured value system that will allow you to structure your life properly. Prioritize a healthy relationship with yourself, if you want to have a healthy relationship with others.
Chaos and order are two of the most fundamental elements of our existence. Uncertainty contains everything that is unknown to us, including both pain and joy, failures and opportunities. Rather than fight against uncertainty, we must learn to live with it so we can walk more confidently into the unexplored territory of our lives.
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About Jessica Lauren Walton: Jessica is a communications strategist, video producer, and writer in the U.S. defense industry. She has written articles on a range of security and mental health topics and conducted interviews with military leadership, psychologists, filmmakers, CIA officers, journalists, and more. Jessica recently completed her memoir about her experience as an American woman struggling with mental illness while trying to get into Israeli intelligence.