Unpopular Opinions: Gen Z Have a Fresh Take on Fear — We Can Learn From Their Approach

In her new intergenerational column for The Latch—, Crystal Andrews will explore the differences in thinking, behaviours and beliefs between Gen Z their Millennial ‘elders’. Crystal is the founder of news platform Zee Feed and author of How to Win Every Argument: A No-Filter Guide to Being Right About Everything.

Gen Zs like to tell me things.

That shouldn’t come as a shock, given their much-hyped status as one of the most politically active and socially aware generations ever. They clearly want to be heard. Even so, in the early stages of establishing Zee Feed, a news platform covering the issues Gen Z care about, I was surprised at how often and how much they were willing to share in public comments or private DMs.

With a strong cohort of older Millennials now making up part of the Zee Feed audience too, it’s fascinating to see how each group’s core beliefs intertwine… and where they split.

One area where we’re not as aligned as you might think? Willpower and mental health.

With the promise of anonymity, people tell me what they really think on a whole range of topics in our Unpopular Opinions series, and the most recent submission tackled the psychology of fear. (Yes, it often gets this philosophical!)

“If fear is something that we learn, through experience or what society tells us is ‘dangerous’, and is just a bunch of electrical signals in the brain, it’s really like we’re creating that fear.” 

They are young, and eager to have their point-of-view tested under friendly scrutiny.

“It obviously affects everybody differently, but for me it’s helpful to think of fear as something I have full control over. Something I can stop.”

It’s essentially a belief in the power of the mind to overcome anything — even something as intrinsic or as paralysing as fear.

Is this a naive view on willpower or should the rest of us be taking notes?

Normalising therapy, adopting therapy-speak

“I used to think the answer was no [to the mind overcoming fear], but deeper self-awareness means I know the answer is yes!”

Most of the support for the idea that mental willpower could trump fear came from younger people using ‘therapy speak’. There is a clear trend of Gen Z using the language of psychologists and therapists to explain what they think and feel, confidently wielding terms like “trauma response” and “intrusive thoughts” with context and clarity.

While these might be concepts they are learning from their own mental health professionals, therapy and ‘higher self’ content is also an exploding niche on social media. The #TikTokTherapist hashtag has 154 million views — I’ve had at least two profound realisations of my own since stumbling across ‘therapy TikTok’. 

This is the content Gen Z are consuming every day, taking lessons to help them navigate the world even if the application is not always perfect.

If Australia is seeing an increase in people accessing mental health services, we might have Gen Z to thank for normalising therapy online… maybe even making it cool?

Compartmentalise and conquer

“I agree for the types of fear that society has drilled into us, but not for more innate fears.”

Gen Z also tended to be quicker to categorise fear into two “types”: a biological fear, like you might experience in a car accident, and social fears, like being afraid of public speaking. 

By defining it this way, they agreed that social fears could absolutely be mastered with willpower, support and (of course) therapy, while admitting that fear of death would probably be impossible to overcome.

This thinking sets them up to at least have a chance at success over one part, if not the whole.

Older Millennials instead were more likely to assume the discussion was about innate fear only and took a much more defensive stance based on that assumption. Trying to use sheer willpower to override fear of your own mortality? That obstacle is huge and sets us up to fail.

The ability to compartmentalise might be what’s keeping Gen Z so optimistic in the face of great challenges. They know they can expect some small wins along the way if they focus on what’s achievable.

As for Millennials, whether it’s the additional decade of life experience or memories of failure that still sting, we tend to have a more pessimistic view of what’s possible.

Separating emotion from reaction

“Fear is an innate protection built from evolution. How we respond to fear is a choice.”

One interpretation found support across all ages and genders – regardless of the emotion we feel, we can always choose how to respond.

As my own non-TikTok psychologist often tells me, our reactions are all we can control as we ride the emotional rollercoaster that is 2020. We can find power in that no matter how scared we feel.

Look, I know that “You can only control your actions” might not be the unifying battlecry we hoped would rally every generation for the challenges to come, but don’t worry. Pretty soon, Gen Z will translate it into a clever bit of Internet slang and within months we’ll be pretending like it was our motto all along. 

Follow Crystal Andrews and Zee Feed on Instagram.