Daniel P. Keating Ph.D.

Stressful Lives

Stress

America’s Stress Test: Igniting Our Resilience

New evidence shows that America's stress epidemic is growing. What can we do?

Posted Nov 26, 2018

For a number of decades now, we have been experiencing a growing stress epidemic. This shows up in our responses to surveys, in an escalating stress load in our bodies, and in rising rates of stress-related disorders and diseases. Because major sources of stress are social, from rising inequality to growing uncertainty about the future, it was reasonable to predict that the disruption of the Trump Era would make all of this markedly worse.

And now there is striking new evidence to show that this prediction is coming to pass.  The most recent survey of Stress in America from the American Psychological Association captures the increase in reports of feeling stressed, and this impact seems to be hitting the younger generation (“Gen Z”) especially hard, as they report substantial impacts from concerns about mass shootings in schools, the rise in suicide rates, global warming, family separation at the border, and sexual harassment and assault.  This increased stress, especially for younger generations, is found not only in surveys, but also in physiological measures of stress load as well, a troubling trend because it has clear negative effects on illness and even early death.  So much for the dismissal of these issues affecting the younger generation as simple moaning from snowflake millennials.

These trends toward a harsher social environment are evident not only in Presidential tweets that feature bullying, racism, misogyny, flagrant lying, and disrespect for the law, but also in the behaviors of those who take those messages as a sign that it is acceptable to act on their worst impulses, and are emboldened to do so.  The FBI reported recently that hate crimes rose by 17 percent in 2017, and the figure is even higher for young people in school settings, at about 25 percent

Added to that is the social disruption, fear, stress, and anxiety engendered by extreme actions of some followers that are rising sharply – from pipe bombs sent to political opponents and the media to anti-Semitic murders in a synagogue.

We should also not be complacent that if and when the winds shift toward less intense acrimony and disruption, that the effects will disappear.  Even on a biological level, we know that the youngest among us, when exposed to early life adversity and stress because of stressed-out, anxious parents, and high stress in their families and communities, are far more likely to suffer from stress dysregulation, the inability to handle stress in healthy ways, because that early stress “gets under the skin.” 

It’s nearly enough to make one despair.  But we shouldn’t.  That only ensures that the stress, and its effects, will endure. We now know quite a bit about resilience, the ability to bounce back from stress and adversity, on an individual level, and that capability exists at all life stages. The key elements for fostering resilience at the individual level are well established: strong social connections that provide support and also counteract the major negative physiological effects of stress (especially excess cortisol) through the release of beneficial hormones like serotonin and oxytocin; cultivating a habit of conscious mindfulness that works against regret, recrimination and resentment about the past and against excessively fearful and anxious worries about the future, while allowing us to live in the present as well as to engage in thoughtful planning about productive paths forward; and taking care of the body, deploying counteragents to excess stress like exercise and sleep hygiene and avoiding short-term fixes with high health risks like alcohol, drugs, and too much comfort food.

But even following all of these paths to individual resilience doesn’t address the bigger picture: What is the source of America’s stress epidemic, which has been growing for decades and is spiking even more now?  And, can we do anything to ignite and promote our capacity for societal resilience?  The long-term trends are fairly clear.  Rising social inequality has negative effects throughout society: those at the lower end of social and economic status experience increasing financial insecurity, from a lack of reasonable quality, affordable housing to food insecurity to access to critical health care.  For the middle class, including even the professional class, there are realistic fears that their current life styles could easily slip away in the next financial crisis, even if not for them then for their children for whom upward social mobility – which used to be a given in the post-WWII era – cannot be assumed, and sliding down a steep ladder of inequality is a real and worrisome possibility. 

For some sectors of the middle class, this worry has already become real.  Small town and rural America has missed out on much of the dynamism of the modern global, digital economy, at the same time that its economic base has been eroding. This is tragic for many in this group, with “deaths of despair” leading to a largely unprecedented drop in longevity. This perceptible drop in status, health, and well-being contributes to a rejection of policies that would actually help, through investments in human development (health care, parental supports, skill re-training, and so on) which can soften and mitigate the impact of rising inequality.  Because of how political power is distributed in the U.S., giving disproportionate weight to smaller population centers, efforts to counteract the roots of America’s stress epidemic face an uphill challenge.

But not an impossible one.  Major challenges have been addressed in the past, though never easily, as there is always pushback and progress is never guaranteed.  A war was needed to end slavery, and it took another century to enact meaningful protections in civil and voting rights legislation.  The Great Depression exposed how the U.S. lagged behind similarly wealthy nations in providing even a minimal social safety net.  From the basic programs for social security in the New Deal of the 1930s, through the expansion of social supports like Medicare in the 1960s, and to the Affordable Care Act of the early 2000s, there has been progress marked by fits and starts against strong opposition.  Societal resilience in the face of major challenges has marked our history, even in the face of strong headwinds.

It’s worthwhile to think about what the most helpful forms of societal resilience might be in the current era of heightened conflict and attacks on core institutions and norms.  By analogy to the sources of individual resilience, we can identify several major approaches.  Building social connections, especially those that can address the challenges directly, is a major first step.  Many grassroots social movements have emerged recently: Black Lives Matter; MeToo; the youth movement for gun control sparked by the Parkland mass shooting; and others.  A particularly encouraging aspect of this trend is the active involvement of younger people in leadership roles, and the hard-headed practicality of those young leaders who understand that protest needs to become political power to be effective.  The broad endorsement in the recent House elections of a younger and far more diverse group of Representatives – a record number of women, significantly increased diversity in race and ethnicity – is a major opening for stronger and more supportive social connections.  Implementing conscious mindfulness, a second source of resilience, is always challenging, and doubly so on a societal level.  But a reasonable reading of what this emerging group of new leaders will work for represents a clear-eyed understanding of the balance between idealism and pragmatism, and the need to focus on forward-looking initiatives.  Retribution doesn’t make any real appearance in their rhetoric.

Igniting and sustaining this resilience will not be easy, and pushback on a major scale is to be expected.  But it is only through these efforts that the roots of America’s stress epidemic can be uprooted, and offers the only realistic way to meet America’s stress test successfully.