When I first heard about these “holidays,” I thought it was pretty ridiculous. I think it’s safe to say we are all pretty aware of stress (maybe even too aware.) Warnings about stress, along with strategies to overcome it, seem to be found just about everywhere we look.
Stress is the #1 reason why people come to visit spas (the industry I work in) and my studies in positive psychology uncover a variety of interventions for managing stress from sleep, to exercise, to relationships, to positive experiences.
Not only do we have more than sufficient awareness of stress in our society, but we also have a healthy and growing body of research on strategies to combat it. So why does it feel like life keeps getting more stressful? What are we doing wrong?
In a new book called “One Nation Under Stress: The Trouble with Stress as an Idea,” social work professor Dana Becker suggests that our efforts at stress relief have been misguided at best. In the past decades, we have focused our efforts on awareness, and individual responsibility, while ignoring the societal problems that are the root causes of human anxiety.
Although I think her book is based a little bit on a false dichotomy—presuming we should either take responsibility for our responses to stressors or address the societal factors that are at their root—I do agree with her criticism.
I have often felt, for example, that positive psychology would be far more effective if it pointed it’s lens at communal and societal wellbeing, rather than being almost exclusively oriented towards the individual pursuit of happiness (thankfully, some governments are beginning to discuss this idea.)
But here in the U.S., we live in an individualistic society, where people are expected to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. So when women (and particularly women with children) show increasing signs of stress, we don’t question our societal views towards families (my wife and I are always pleasantly surprised at the preferential treatment we get when traveling with children in other countries) and we accept as a fact of life the economic situation that pushes increasing numbers of households to pursue two incomes. Rather than questioning the cultural norms we are establishing in our society, we give women “tips” on how to manage their stress.
When soldiers come back from combat with post traumatic stress disorder, we don’t re-examine the true costs of warfare. We give our soldiers resilience training to teach them how to “bounce back” from traumatic experiences.
And across a myriad of stressors from work, traffic, economic woes, racism, illness, etc. we coach individuals on how to keep stress at bay, through yoga, meditation, exercise, journaling, cognitive reframing, therapy, or even medication. And all of this stress-relieving activity makes us feel like we are doing something while we ignore the big problems of modern America.
Becker says that the first step in creating a different attitude towards stress is to recognize the vulnerability of the human condition. Stress is not a disease or disorder to be diagnosed and treated on an individual basis. It is a sign of our sensitivity to our surroundings and a gauge through which we can measure the health of our society.
Rather than trying to squelch the essential vulnerability that is a core facet of human nature, we should learn from it to make a better world. A world where there is more peace and less trauma, less inequality and poverty and more quality time to spend with loved ones, a world where there is less competition and more collaboration for the betterment of all.
So the real stress relief does not come from breathing exercises, scented candles and self-help books.; although those things may all help. Real stress relief comes from meaningful changes to our society that consider the vulnerability of humanity and create communities where flourishing can take place.
References and recommended reading:
Becker, D. (2013). One Nation Under Stress: The Trouble with Stress as an Idea. Oxford University Press.
by Jeremy McCarthy
E-book available: The Psychology of Spas and Wellbeing.