Stressing about the small stuff

This week, I have a series of posts about the book One Nation Under Stress, by Dana Becker.

I have been talking about it almost incessantly since reading it, so I’m sure my friends and family will be glad that I’m getting some of it out of my system, to share here, with you all. My reaction to the text’s conclusions were personal as well as professional, and it has prompted me to try to start conversations about stress and what it looks like and means in our society, every chance I get (and, truly, some that I just sort of create).

Because, while we talk about stress a lot, as a culture and as a nation, I don’t think we’re having the right dialogue about it, yet.

And I am more convinced than ever that it’s hurting us.

But not in the way we think.

Reviewing the popular and academic literature, there has been an exponential growth in attention to the idea of ‘stress’ as a precursor of disease, a corrosive force on our individual lives, and a public health threat.

It is taken, at face value, as a necessarily dangerous and scary thing.

But, alarmingly, there has not been nearly as much attention to the societal conditions that cause that stress.

It’s like we have skipped right over the obvious questions about why people are feeling so much stress and, indeed, whether that’s necessarily an ill in and of itself, and gone straight to the prescription:

retreat and rejuvenate.

Cut back.

Cope better.

Not, notably, join together for collective action to address the root causes of the strains we feel.

So, as the book emphasizes, we wring our hands about the stresses of middle-class life but say little about the need to eradicate poverty, an undeniably more ‘stressful’ state.

We talk about the occupational hazards of busy calendars or buzzing Blackberries, when it’s our unhealthy economy that is really a threat.

We talk about how poor women are depressed, but gloss over research suggesting that just making sure their households have enough food would alleviate considerably their mental distress (p. 91).

We talk about how low-income children can increase their resilience and improve their coping, instead of focusing on their chronic exposure to deprived environments. After all, we don’t talk about how advantaged people are ‘coping’ with well-equipped schools, privileged social stations, and adequate financial resources. Their stresses, presumably, come from some of the trappings of those advantages, and we pretend that they are commensurate with the strains that accompany real threat.

The end result, then, is this: “the stress concept performs ideological work for us by managing much of our uneasiness about social change…” (p. 17).

We can talk about poverty’s ill effects by linking economic need to stress to the immune system.

Somehow, that sounds less threatening to our social system than baldly stating the truth: poverty kills (p. 61). Studies have attributed 176,000 deaths to racial segregation and 133,000 to personal poverty, per year, compared to 156,000 to lung cancer (p. 73). It’s not ‘stress’, of course, that’s killing poor people, per se; it’s inadequate nutrition, violence, untreated chronic diseases, unsafe jobs, substance abuse.

But we can use stress as a mediating concept, simultaneously glossing over the inequities (because we’re ‘all stressed, just in different ways’) and placing the onus back on the individual (for failing to ‘manage’ his/her stress).

We’re not only mistaking consequence for cause, in this preoccupation with stress, but we’re also confusing victims and perpetrators, focusing on lifestyles instead of structural failings.

In the process, we’re spending a lot of time looking at and worrying about the vestiges of injustice–this ill-defined anxiety and unease and pressure, but precious little time talking about fixing it, at the root.

That is stressing me out.

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