Does “Stress” Hide Deeper Social Problems?

Stress has become our own personal predicament to solve instead of something caused by social ills

  • Share
  • Read Later
Getty Images

Americans have been worrying about the negative health impact of our fast pace of life since the Industrial Revolution, but in the last few decades, the concept of “stress” has spread to almost every condition or situation imaginable — from obesity to terrorism to chipped nail polish. Stress is now a protean concept whose shape-shifting properties give it tremendous versatility as a vehicle for explaining human dilemmas. But the chameleon-like nature of the concept makes it possible to obscure or avoid addressing social problems by individualizing them.

When Walter Cannon, Harvard physiologist and pioneer of stress research, first used the term “stress” in the 1920s, he was referring to what he called the “disturbing conditions” to which people react physiologically with a “fight or flight” response (adrenalin release; speeded-up heartbeat; elevated blood sugar). Today when we say we’re “stressed out,” what we’re typically referring to is a psychological or emotional state, and we worry that stress will compromise our immune system functioning, increasing our vulnerability to disease.

(MORE: The Most Stressed Out Generation? Young Adults)

Stress is now an inside job:  it’s feeling “stressed” that causes our problems, not the situations and conditions that make us feel “stressed out” in the first place. Instead of thinking about stress as something outside us, it’s now become integral to the self. So the problem of stress has become our own personal predicament to solve, and there’s no dearth of advice about how to do this:  eat more kale, get some therapy, take a yoga class. The message is:  change yourself, change your lifestyle, or learn to adapt to the stress.

Consider what it means to accept this way of thinking about stress. If women believe that it’s our job to manage the stress of combining paid employment and family work, we’re more likely to “de-stress” by putting more bath oil in the bath and less likely to work toward changing family-unfriendly workplace policies or to agitate for universal daycare. If we view people who live below the poverty line the way Chief of Cardiology at Kaiser Richmond Medical Center does, as people who live “a more stressful life” in a “community that produces high stress hormones in people,” according to Killer Stress: National Geographic Special, then we’re more likely to offer them psychotherapy or lifestyle advice and less likely to confront the societal problems of economic inequality and neighborhood violence.

(MORE: Cover Story: The Two Faces of Anxiety)

Though it may seem that we’re so preoccupied with stress and its effects because we’re just a nation of middle-class overdoers living in an era of warp-speed technological change, there’s another reason why we’ve come to rely on the idea of stress to explain our lives to us:

The idea of stress does some very heavy lifting for us as a society by helping us avoid the uncertainty and instability that comes along with real social change. While we’re having a national discussion about the high incidence of PTSD among soldiers returning from combat, for example, we’re not having a national debate about the advisability of sending soldiers into combat in the age of the IED.

There’s no amount of counseling, kale, or yoga — even if these were available or affordable to everyone in the U.S. — that will alter the economic, political, and social forces that sustain poverty or war in the age of terrorism, or what we glibly call “work-family conflict.” We’re going to have to throw out the bath oil with the bath water if we’re going to tackle the social problems that actually create the stress we bemoan today.

MORE: Can Tough Competition Hinder Academic Performance?