Where Stress Comes From

Most people today are living with, I think, a fear of fear.  There is a sense that something is fundamentally wrong with the way we are living our lives, but a reluctance to look closely at that.  We know deeply that we’re in serious trouble, but we live our daily lives as if everything is fine, whistling past the graveyard.  We try to purchase inner peace, knowing perfectly well that’s impossible, but not seeing an alternative.  Or we tell ourselves that someone will figure out what’s wrong someday, and until then we’ll just have to wait.  Or we’ll simplify our lives later.  Or we may believe for a while in the latest fad—a political leader, a spiritual leader, a self-help guru.  We try to follow what the fad tells us, but it usually doesn’t do much for our troubles, so we give up and try to forget again.

Our sense that something is wrong comes from two losses that seem to be almost an inevitable fact of contemporary life.  One is our loss of a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives, which was sustained by a connectedness with each other, with generations, with a community in which we felt a part, with a belief in a God that gave our lives a purpose even if we could not understand the purpose ourselves.  The other is our loss of a sense of being in a relationship with the natural world, the feeling that humanity is just one thread of the fabric of life, a part of a constant flow of birth–fruition–death–rebirth.  It’s not that we have lost Eden and need to recapture it; our lives in former times were much more difficult.  But the sense of connection with each other, with God, and with nature gave us some insulation from stress—protected our brains and nervous systems, and gave them the opportunity and resources to regroup and recover.

It’s not just me who’s saying these things.  Psychologists and psychiatrists are worried about the continuing increase in depression and anxiety disorders.  Some philosophers are calling this the “age of depression.”[i]  Social scientists who study what is called “subjective well-being” have noticed how it seems to begin to decline in each country as it becomes Westernized.  R. E. Lane’s massive The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies[ii] lays out a chilling case for growing anomie, alienation, and loss of satisfaction as economic conditions improve.  There is, for instance, a direct correlation between the growth in U.S. Gross Domestic Product and decline in numbers of people who say they are “very happy” over the last 50 years.  There is a vast and growing body of literature out there now trying to explain these trends.  I’ve read enough of this to know something about the major ideas, but I’m going to base my discussion here largely on my clinical experience, because I think it puts these trends in a much more human light.

Social Conditions

It’s not just my patients, but almost everyone I know, who’s in trouble now—unsure, worried, feeling cut off from life, uncertain how to parent or how to be in relationships with other adults, looking for something but not sure what.  I think we’re in uniquely troubled times, for several reasons:

  • The rate of social change we’re experiencing is unprecedented in history and has enormous impact, much of it negative, on our minds and bodies.
  • Our parents and generations going back to the Industrial Revolution also experienced cataclysmic social change, and that has had cumulative impact, again most of it negative, on the way we were parented and how we parent today.
  • The direction of social change has had a largely negative impact on our minds and our nervous systems—the breakdown of the family, the loss of faith in institutions like government and the church, the development of a consumer culture, revolutions in healthcare and aging, our loss of contact with the natural world.

Loss of Meaning

When I refer to a loss of meaning and purpose in our lives, I am talking about the results of immense social change over the last two centuries.  This has resulted in, among other things, the treatment of the individual worker as a commodity to be used up, and the resultant disjointing of the individual from his/her daily activities—so, except for a few specialized careers, what we make or what we do gives us little sense of pride, accomplishment, or contribution.  Social change has contributed to the breakup of the family as an institution, so that we think it’s right somehow for the new young couple to move across country, away from extended family, in pursuit of “opportunity”—meaning the chance to make more money.  Housing patterns have contributed to the loss of sense of community; the ideal of the “single-family home” has isolated and estranged us from neighbors. Parenting, at least in the US, has broken down; the one thing most parents know is that they don’t want to raise their kids they way they were raised.   But without a knowledge base they are extremely insecure about how to raise their children—or else too busy, preoccupied, or estranged.  There is no reference to the past, to the old way of doing things, that once gave people a sense of safety and identity.  Now our identity comes from mass culture.

One of the worst aspects of the problem is that we are being trained to doubt our own experience and common sense, which automatically puts us in a state of anxiety.  I am referring to the disparity between how we imagine our lives should be and how we actually experience them.  Much of this disparity comes from stereotypes of culture as portrayed in mass media.  We get the message that it’s easy to be happy; just buy the right things.  Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work.  

          For instance, the image portrayed of the economic growth of the ’90s was that everyone in America was benefiting from the expanding economy, when in fact only the wealthiest were seeing any growth in real income.  Virtually all income growth went to the richest fifth of the population, while real wages for the bottom three-fifths had stagnated or fallen.  In 1976, the richest ten percent of Americans controlled 49 percent of all wealth; in 1999, it was 73 percent; not much left over for the rest of us.[iii]  Now, after a recession, we’re told we’re in recovery; but it can’t create jobs, because all manufacturing is now done overseas.  This is a recovery that benefits only the wealthy, and creates only McJobs for the shrinking middle class.  Just watch the news:  every time unemployment increases, the stock market goes up; when unemployment decreases, and workers might be in a position to demand better wages and working conditions, the stock market goes down.  It’s not class warfare to point out that the interests of the workers and the interests of the shareholders are in conflict.  Of course, the American dream has been to turn each worker into a shareholder, and many of us have our little retirement accounts with Vanguard or Magellan, but the growing disparity between the wealthy and the middle class has made a mockery of that dream.  CEOs in the United States in 2004 were earning approximately 500 times what their average worker makes; in 1980 it was only 40 times.[iv]

Another example of the media’s reinforcement of false positive stereotypes: although you will see the occasional horror story about managed care, the effects of the breakdown of the healthcare system on the average person in terms of expense, inconvenience, and poorer health are not documented—the myth is still that America has the best healthcare system in the world. In fact by most measures our national health ranks seventeenth among developed countries, despite our spending $4,180 per person annually on health, compared to $2,172 in Belgium, the healthiest country.[v]  For another example, most thinking Americans are aware that our national anti-drug policy has been a dismal failure, causing great damage to minority communities and making us all feel like hypocrites; but serious discussion of a sane drug policy is nowhere to be seen.

Experiences like these, where the truth we perceive is not acknowledged like the Emperor’s new clothes, cause a disconnect between how we feel (confused and anxious) and how we think we should feel (happy and content).  When this kind of disconnect happens to children, researchers now have enough evidence to show that it leads to mental health problems in adulthood.  When it happens to us as adults, we may be so used to it—so distorted by all our previous experience—that we don’t notice it, we discount our own perception of reality, even though the anxiety and confusion is still there under the surface, and continues to be damaging.



[i] Some philosophers are calling this the “age of depression”:  e.g., Roudinesco, 2001.

[ii] R. E. Lane’s massive The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies:  Lane, 2002.

[iii] In 1976, the richest ten percent of Americans controlled: Collins & Yeskel, 2000.

[iv] CEOs in the United States in 2004 were earning approximately 500 times:  Reuters Summit-U.S. Executive Pay Still Out of Control.  Wed February 18, 2004. http://www.reuters.com/newsArticle.jhtml

[v] By most measures our national health ranks seventeenth among developed countries:  World Markets Research Centre, 2002.