Private Stress, Public Stress

What causes stress?

Posted May 25, 2020

Stress is experienced as a private phenomenon. We pick up the baton and join the parade, twirling the baton, and hope to fight off stress. If I drop the baton, it's my fault.  

Privatization of stress keeps the public causes of that stress out of full awareness.

Psychotherapy has offered the gift of enabling individuals to adapt to stress: To understand the personal and familial histories that limit resiliency. With therapeutic intervention, people have benefitted enormously.

Techniques of many kinds have shown great results in stress reduction. With the help of thoughtful, caring clinicians, people are provided with strategies and techniques that are absolutely essential for well-being.

With well-being, individuals regain strength that is essential for living healthy, productive lives. The aim is often pragmatic: Helping a person sleep. Eating properly. Managing anger. Staving off repetitive thoughts. In countless ways, therapists, from psychiatrists to mental health workers, have been instrumental in getting people into shape.

When I think about well-being, I literally picture a parade.

People are marching down a long street, moving in step, at a good pace. Waving banners, waving to the crowd, and I hear the sound of marching bands, drums, and horns, it’s all quite joyous.

But then someone falters, head forward, shoulders drawn in, and the person drops the baton and falls to the ground. The others keep marching.

Thank goodness, there’s someone on the sidelines who rushes up to the person on the ground. They help her to sit up. They sit and talk to her, give her a cool drink of water. They hear what happened:

“I got overheated. I did not sleep well. I was in a rush so I didn’t have time to eat breakfast. My feet are killing me. My mind was elsewhere. I should have watched where I was going.”

Soon enough, she feels better. The helper, having been therapeutic, enabled her to have the strength to get back in the parade.

But maybe the parade should be called off or redirected. Could it be that others, while strong enough to march, keep their stress to themselves? And that the stress has as much to do with the parade itself as one's private experience of it?

The privatization of stress keeps its public causes out of awareness. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, “Total household debt in the United States, including mortgages, auto loans, credit card and student debt, climbed to $14.15 trillion in the fourth quarter of 2019, eclipsing the previous peak at the height of the great recession in Q3 2008 by $1.5 trillion in nominal terms.”

Private debt in U.S. households, which is among the world’s largest, is one cause of the 19.2% rate of depression (World Health Organization figure) in the United States. When emotional problems result from private debt, is that systemic cause addressed adequately by therapists who are treating the depression?  

Emotional debt is caused by economic debt and experienced as private. Its causes are systemic.

The therapist, after reviving the straggler might add, “Put down the baton.”

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory