Steven Mintz Ph.D.

The Prime of Life


Why Stress Rules Our Lives

Why today's adults feel more stress than did their predecessors

Posted Apr 12, 2015

In pensive thought by E. Percy Moran, 1891, LC-USZ62-71604, brary of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.
Source: In pensive thought by E. Percy Moran, 1891, LC-USZ62-71604, brary of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

Objectively, adult lives are more comfortable, less physically demanding, and easier than those in the past. Our health is far better, our life expectancy much longer, our standard of living visibly higher. Our jobs are less taxing physically. We have a safety net, which, whatever its inadequacies, is more extensive than anything that previously existed.

Yet, by most measures, adults feel more stress than did their predecessors. Indeed, the very concept of stress is a relatively recent invention, dating back only to the 1920s and 1930s. But it was not until the 1950s that a modern model of stress, in which the release of certain hormones in response to stressors induces certain psycho-physiological changes, entered the broader culture.  Subsequent years saw significant advances in understanding of the neurchemistry and bio-psychological mechanisms of stress, of the variety of stress disorders (including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, identified in the mid1970s), and of approaches to coping with stress.

The term stress originated in the fields of physics and metallurgy. People, like steel, could be brittle or malleable, breakable or resilient, fragile or flexible. Terms like tension and pressure are rooted in an analogy with stress or pressure in metal or gases. 

To cope with anxiety and the stresses in their lives, a very high percentage of the population relies on cigarettes, alcohol, and tranquilizers, sedatives, and sleeping pills.

Why do so many adults today feel overwhelmed by stress and find it so difficult to cope?

Time pressures have certaily mounted, especially for women who must work a double shift, combining domestic and paid work responsibilities.

There's also a pervasive sense of insecurity. Our jobs and marriages seem less stable and secure than in the past and our children's future less predictable.

Expectations -- about an appropriate standard of living or the quality of a fulfilling marriage or sex life  -- have risen sharply in recent years, sometimes to extremely unrealistic levels.

Our options, too, have greatly expanded. We are freer than ever to decide whether to marry or remain married or whether or not to bear children. We suffer the paradox of choice: That more options result in greater anxiety and more regrets and misgivings. Too many choices leads to paralysis, indecision, and a restless pursuit of the perfect choice. 

In today's economic and social environment, stress is a chronic problem, one that can be managed but not eliminated. Exercise, therapy, positive thinking, relaxation, and reliance on routine -- all have been upheld as techniques to relieve stress. 

But the most effective ways to cope with stress are ones that a highly individualistic culture that emphasizes self-help tends to eschew. These approaches lie in sociability and collective, communal rituals. Interactions with friends, conversation, and shared activities aren't mere distractions. These are sources of meaning that place our stresses and anxieties in fresh perspective.

Earlier generations dealt with stress through activities that have grown less common in our time-pinched society. These people were joiners, who participated in an array of organizations, religious, civic, fraternal or sororital, political and social. Their lives were more embedded in extended kinship networks and friendship circles that persisted for decades.

We may not be able to resurrect that earlier way of life, but we must recognize that our mental health hinges on sociability far beyond what most adults experience today.