Why You Can't 'Just Say No' to Stress
Simple remedies can help, but collective action is sorely needed.
Posted Oct 06, 2015
One of the most epic commercial lines of the 80's, besides of course "Where's the beef?" "Help, I've fallen and I can't get up!" and "Time to make the donuts..." was "This is your brain on drugs...any questions?" complete with a scene of a sizzling pan and egg fried to a crisp. If you haven't seen these, they are classics definitely worth watching on You Tube. Back then, none of us had any questions after watching — drugs are bad for our brains and bodies. And sometimes the commercial made me hungry for an egg McMuffin too.
This famous breakfast metaphor, "Just say no" to drugs, and Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) campaigns were signature public outreach programs during this era of jelly shoes, big hair and breakdancing. Ironically, researchers later discovered that the DARE program, designed to help students refrain from drug use, actually increased it. Apparently, the power of suggestion is powerful indeed. We have to be careful that our understanding is well grounded and interventions are evidence-based and not just feel-good, or merely laced with positive intentions by design.
With mental health awareness month upon us, it is refreshing to see the huge outcry for greater awareness, access to services and work being done to reduce stigma. It is encouraging to see the strong voices emerging out of the shadows to spark an important and sorely needed public dialogue. But, in all honesty, there are times when I worry about what is being propagated. A great deal of what is asserted is individually oriented, as in messages like "Hope starts with you," and if you do steps 1, 2, and 3, you will feel better. While this is helpful, we also need collective attention and action across our social systems and leadership. In truth, hope starts with us.
The oversimplifications surrounding mental health and stress, as in the solve-your-problems-in-5-easy steps boot camps are misleading, though seductive. With all the demands we encounter, it is enticing to think we could squash stress or run away from it altogether. And yes, it's often the case that small things can make a big difference. Studies show that even relatively short amounts of walking, deep breathing or meditation can bring about a lot of relief. These individual practices are all fairly simple to institute and can tremendously lower our personal stress.
But, as life consistently and often-not-too-gently reveals, our problems are connected to larger economic and sociopolitical ones, requiring thought on how we make sense of ourselves, and one another. We don't operate in silos or live in a vacuum independent of what is going on around us. So much of the "stress management" conversation does not take context into consideration.
We fall into the trap of thinking our struggles are individual or familial in nature, instead of understanding the effects our environment or social groups, which include media, our schools, churches, communities, organizations and governments. Expecting ourselves to be entirely functional within dysfunction might misdirect our attention away from a fundamental truth that is all-too-often overlooked: mental health is a public health and policy matter that begs our collective attention.
When we make it a point to lace up our sneakers, breathe, and clear our minds from distractions we are certainly better off. In fact these practices are crucial, but if we try to oversimplify the situation, we may find ourselves constantly swimming upstream against the prevailing tide in our culture that says it's never enough. We can't underestimate the impact of our context on our health. We live in a time and place with demands of unprecedented levels, or as my friend Jane would say: "It's nuts out there!"
Nuts indeed. According to a Lancet 2012 Global Mental Health Report, the pressures of today are most intense between the ages of 15-44, when we are trying to establish our careers, families and set the foundation for our lives. This is why simple, individual-centric approaches to stress reduction fall short. There is so much to maneuver. We need to earn our degrees, establish "independence" (although I'm not entirely convinced there is such a thing), put food on the table, navigate our relationships, and make our mark on the world.
All this commotion, in our so-called "Age of Anxiety," can leave us wondering what to do about stress. Can you simply "just say no" given the complexity? It doesn't seem so. The World Health Organization reports that 1 out of 5 Americans experience mental health issues and the National Center for Heath Statistics says 11% of us from ages 12 and up are on antidepressants. The Center for Disease Control affirms in a 2012 study that 1 out of 4 women are on medication for depression and or anxiety. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., and men are four times more likely to take their lives than women.
Clearly, the frying pan of today can scald us and leave our brains and bodies in turmoil. We have immense pressure coming at us from all sides. And it starts early. More than ever, today's teens are ambushed at every turn with messages of getting into the right schools, choosing lucrative fields of study, and are peppered with constant reminders telling them that they won't be happy without the best-liked snap chat story, Kardashian-like rear ends, the latest phone upgrade, or hitting it out of the park scholastically, athletically, musically, socially, and even sexually.
Navigating all this takes finesse. In a hyper-competitive market, stress is inevitable, and can't simply be escaped. And even though individual decompression strategies can be tremendously beneficial, and are strongly recommended, combatting it alone without accounting for context will likely fall short. The "just say no" approach has to be a matter of "we" not just "you." Here are a few collective nos to get us started:
1. Just say no to antiquated paradigms that assign stigma when we experience mental health issues. Anxiety and depression are universal. The struggle is not a suggestion of character, ability or worth. It's just a human reaction to life's stressors.
2. Just say no to segmented health care delivery systems and models that compartmentalize our psychological and physical health. We are whole human beings, and need to attend to our minds, bodies and spirits in a more holistic manner. Stress-related illness and death are sabotaging our health, and navigating stress needs to be at the forefront of treatment approaches, including lifestyle medicine interventions — not just pills.
3. Just say no to leaving our kids, schools, teachers, and educational leaders last. When schools aren't prioritized and provided with the resources they need to engage students in meaningful experiences that facilitates deep intellectual, social, emotional, spiritual and creative growth, it is a travesty. When we fail to account for and leverage student wellbeing and work to build social and emotional skills and competencies in our children, we are likely to miss the chance to overturn poor outcomes seen across far too many of our schools. When resources are scarce, we also hurt the caring adults in education who are Angels on Earth, who devote themselves to developing our greatest future resource: thoughtful, critical thinkers who have the chance to reach their full potential.
4. Just say no to burnout-zone work environments. Institutions, companies and businesses that ignore employee wellbeing are behind the times. More than ever, we have come to recognize the value of ensuring positive work cultures that treat people humanely and take tangible actions to promote health and wellness. Burnout has endless costs, and takes its toll in ways that disrupt progress and potential. We can't stand for work cultures that ignore our needs any longer.
5. Just say no to hiding and worrying someone is going to find you out. We need to link arms and take collective action that allows us to become more transparent about how stress is affecting us. Our default mode may be to only present our neatly scripted sides, but when we take the risk to reveal our authentic selves, it allows us to be brave together without the fear of judgment. We have to say no to stigma, and know that stress is truly universal. While we can't avoid it, all of us can benefit from reaching out and accessing resources together, so that we can work to bring about sorely needed change in our thinking about stress within context.
The scramble to avoid becoming fried is tricky, and begs our constant attention. It's hard as individuals to simply "just say no," to say the least. Even if we seem to be navigating fairly well, we have a responsibility to one another to raise awareness and promote better policies and practices.
Given the pressures you are facing, is there something you can do to advocate for wider changes wherever you are situated personally or professionally? And if you are in a position of influence or leadership, how might you encourage this within your respective circles of impact?