It seems that everyone is stressed out. Even children talk about being stressed. I am sure that the incidence of stress in America and Western Europe is more pervasive than the Swine Flu (or whatever euphemism we are using for it to take attention from where it came from). I am surprised that governments have not issued Stress Alerts. A generation that invented Multi-Tasking as an act of cultural pride is now swamped by an epidemic of anxiety, irritability, and debilitating hyperactivity that wears us out from the inside. We solder on, accepting our lot as the price we pay for progress and the good life – not human beings but human doings.
Here are a few things that I know about stress from both personal experience and extensive scientific professional observation:
Stress is a real phenomena it is not imagined.
Stress is not a mystery. Everyone knows why they are stressed and what to do about it.
Stress will do you in even if you exercise regularly and eat a really, really good diet.
Stress is an essential part of our economic system. If you are not stressed out you are probably a communist.
The reality of stress lies in the definition. Stress is what happens when you expose a structure or organism to pressures it is not made to withstand. Simple isn’t it. When we attempt to make our body, mind or spirit do things that we are not designed to do we experience a trauma to our being. Our system rebels and we feel as if we might either implode or explode. It is interesting that so many of us feel that it is our system that is at fault, we should be able to handle everything that life throws at us. (This is where the heroism comes in) we become addicted to the drama of the trauma.
Stress has become the acceptable price of success; if you’re not stressed out of your brain you are not pulling your weight. In order to live with ourselves we have to accept that there is nothing we can do and just hope that the we don’t break into tears in the supermarket again, that the economy picks up, that the acid reflux stays under control and that we don’t flip out and kill our neighbors the next time they play loud music. We also hope that our insurance will cover the expense of the heart attack we are sure to have if our immune system doesn’t pack in first and leave us exposed to the next animal sourced epidemic. (After mad-cow, bird flu and swine flu we have to wonder which other animal will toss a virus over the fence – but I digress.)
I often ask clients to tell me ten things they know they could do to improve their health, they can always do it. They give great answers regarding how to improve their physical health and mental/emotional wellbeing. What clever folks! It is then that my evil twin emerges and I ask “The Question”, “Why don’t you just do that?” This is where the terrain becomes rocky. The answer to the “The Question” is – “I don’t have the time”. This is often followed by the long list of obligations, commitments, burdens and blunders that occupy the clients day. It is often an awesome list. It’s all real, it all hurts but it’s all based some fairly absurd assumptions about life.
I am avoiding writing these next paragraphs. I really am. Because every time I bring certain things up I know that many folks roll their eyes thinking the ideas are so idealistic or fantastic (in a Buck Rogers sort of way) or naive and they turn off – but I am beyond embarrassment. Why the hell are we doing this to ourselves? What do we hope to gain? Why have we fallen for such shallow promises that offer such scant rewards? I must admit that “The Promise” is a dandy one. It includes (but is not limited to) possession of a big house, lots of cool up-to-the-minute technology, endless sexual vitality, exotic vacations, a new car, fashionable clothes and the physical appearance of a movie star. All of these things are seen to be available if you have the money to buy them. Unless you are one of the lucky few that were born to wealth, you will trade your life for these things but they are worth it. When you have reached the apex of purchasing power you will be happy (did I mention the sex?).
A Compromise Promise is on offer for those with limited financial clout. You can get quite a few of the toys, some imitations of the fashions, nose and boob jobs. Cars and lots of Promise thingies are available on payment plans, that means you will be a wage slave till you retire and you children may hate you because you didn’t get it right.
We all face a very peculiar set of decisions at this time. We want to enjoy our life but know that many of the things we enjoy produce ill effects on ourselves, the lives of others, the environment and generations yet unborn. It is a problem that needs resolution if we are to fulfill our human potential and create a healthy society and a healthy planet. We need to learn to simplify – NO! Don’t you dare go away! This is the hard part.
Separating our needs from our desires or our “need from our greed”, as Gandhi put it, may be the most important factor that decides the future of humankind. Technological Development and increases in population have conspired to accelerate and compress cultural development in unpredictable ways. Many of the new technologies have produced problems that off-set any perceived benefits. I see this process daily with my clients. They struggle to find ways to incorporate healthy habits into a life that has been shaped and often dominated by unhealthy ones. It seems that we are programming ourselves to accept the unacceptable in exchange for things we don’t really need, provide only fleeting pleasure but feel we should have. This is, by the way, exactly what we are expected to feel. One of the main driving forces of the consumer culture is that we need to feel unfulfilled that way we keep the wheels moving. “Labor saving devices” and “scientific breakthroughs promised more leisure, reduced work hours and a more just society. But the facts don’t add up.
The green revolution promised food to feed the poor, what it produced was genetic manipulation of crops, decreased diversity, the destruction of small farms and increased profit by big agribusiness. The revolution in mobile phones promised increased communication but also comes with 24/7 availability from the boss. Together with email that means that many people are always at work, their time is not their own. One of my sons and I once stood in amazement watching a man fly fishing in the beautiful Rocky Mountains and doing business on his phone while standing in the river. It is the virtual world that becomes more important than the world within the range of our senses.
According to a study by Ball State University’s School for Media Design, adult Americans (no one under 18 was included) now spend more than eight hours a day staring at a screen. It breaks down to an interesting picture of life as we know it. Television requires five hours or more; for those 45 – 54 it was 9.5 hours. Over two and a half hours engrossed in the computer and at least 20 minutes looking at the screen on a mobile device (no talking just looking). The more time we spend looking at screens the more screens we need, not just more screens but better ones, bigger ones, screens with more detail, screens that do more. It is our addiction to using products that are designed to be redundant that drives the machine. If we do not accept the wisdom of unplugging as much as possible, scaling down on our addiction to the new, and learning to live more simply the problem of stress will not only continue to rise but the pharmaceutical solution will win the day. Already America ranks as one of the unhappiness nations in the world. This unhappiness is buttressed with defiance that our way of life is the best and certainly all the ingredients are there.
Millions of people in the Western world are learning to gain more from less. According to research in the UK, 25% of 29 – 59 year olds have downsized their income by up to 40% to improve the quality of their life. They are cutting back on the shopping, buying ethically, eating well and enjoying it. We have the resources and the freedoms it only remains to be seen if we have the willingness and courage to shift direction, learn to say no thanks and smell the roses.