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The Causes of Stress in America

How technology and politics may be eroding relationships and raising our stress.

Pedro Figueras/Pexels
Source: Pedro Figueras/Pexels

Over the past several years, I’ve noticed a rising trend. Like everyone, as I go about my day, I greet friends, family members, acquaintances, and even strangers, often asking “How are you?” The traditional answer, of course, is something like “Good” or “Fine.” But recently, I’ve been hearing very different replies: “stressed,” “busy,” and occasionally, “overwhelmed.”

It seems like the American public is more “stressed out” than at any time in recent memory.

According to the American Psychological Association’s newly released 2019 Stress in America survey, the average person is under at least moderate stress—coming in at 4.9 on a 10-point scale. And those surveyed from Generation Z (currently between the ages of 18 and 22) are even more stressed, rising to 5.8 on the same scale. Consistent with these numbers, college students’ demand for counseling services has been steadily increasing, growing by 30 percent between 2009 and 2014, with 61 percent of this group seeking support for anxiety.

But why?

In her new book, Stressed in the U.S., psychologist Meg Van Deusen writes, “In psychology, if we know what causes a condition, we have a better chance of curing it. It’s imperative, as psychologists and as lay citizens, that we pause and look at some of the underlying circumstances for stress.”

Van Deusen believes it has something to do with our diminishing attachments to one another. In a recent interview on KPFA Radio’s About Health, she told me, “When I refer to attachment, I’m referring to the psychological bond, usually between two people, over time.” The theory of attachment was created by psychiatrist John Bowlby in the 1940s and further developed by psychologist Mary Ainsworth. By observing the interactions between infants and their primary caregivers, they discovered that babies are not just driven to satiate their hunger and thirst, but to form deep attachment relationships. “We need soothing and comfort,” Van Deusen explains, “not just in the form of food or clothing, but in the form of emotional security and safety.”

These attachments form the basis, at least in part, of our ability to cope with stress. Relationships are a kind of stress buffer. Though we can’t necessarily control the stressful events that happen around us, our relationships provide a sense of safety in the midst of the storm. Take that away and we feel more exposed.

Van Deusen argues that this erosion in attachment and rise in stress has been a slow progression, but that it has become particularly prominent among Americans since the beginning of the 21st century. She points to two possible reasons for this: the rise of technology and the simultaneous erosion in many people’s faith in their country.

“We’re quite attached to our phones,” she told me. “So we’re looking at them a lot, and we’re not looking at each other as much. I know that sounds very simple, but it’s actually really important. One of the things about attachment theory that’s really key is that secure attachments come from affect regulation—being able to look each other in the eye and respond to each others’ feelings.”

Indeed, people are spending less time with one another. Recent research finds that over half of individuals from Generation Z use their smartphones five or more hours a day, and a quarter use their phones ten or more hours. That’s time they’re not engaging with each other directly. And research by Jean Twenge at San Diego State University has found an association between more use of social media and greater mental health issues in teenagers.

At the same time that new technologies have been challenging our traditional ways of relating to one another, national and political sources of stress have been rising. According to APA’s 2017 Stress in America survey, which focused on political stress, 63 percent of Americans were stressed about the future of the nation and 57 percent said they were worried about the current political climate. That latter number has risen to 62 percent in the latest survey. Van Deusen argues that this relatively high political stress is due to a series of events that have diminished Americans’ sense of secure and trusting attachment to the country and its leaders. Most recently, this includes the impeachment inquiry. However, since the turn of the 21st century, we’ve also faced 9/11, the Great Recession, natural disasters, mass shootings, and increasingly divisive elections. Indeed, 56 percent of Americans say they consider this the lowest point in our nation's history. This figure is only slightly down from the 59 percent found in the 2017 survey, which, according to that report, spanned people of multiple generations, including those who lived through World War II, the Vietnam War, and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

But, this begs an important question: Is there anything we can do about all our stress? As much as we might like to, we obviously can’t undo 9/11. Although we can definitely vote and advocate for political causes we believe in, such circumstances tend to change slowly. We can write to our elected representatives, but we can't directly control the outcome of the impeachment hearings. Practically speaking, most of us also can’t get rid of our smartphones or go back to a day when they didn’t exist. So, does this mean we’re out of luck in terms of combating our stress?

“No, absolutely not,” says Van Deusen. “There are a lot of simple ways we can intervene on our stress that can be cumulative. We got here in a sort of cumulative way, and so there’s a way we can dial that back, as well.”

She suggests starting with our use of technology. In particular, we can compassionately set three types of boundaries around technology. First, we can set “time boundaries,” consciously deciding times of day when we do and don’t want to engage with technology. Second, we can set “place boundaries,” choosing locations where we wish to separate from our devices, relieving ourselves of information overload. Last, we can set “content boundaries.” We aren’t obligated to look at everything our phones want to show us. We can choose to turn off notifications, sounds, and vibration alerts, and even strip our devices of those apps that draw us in but leave us feeling depleted.

Besides being more conscious about using technology, Van Deusen suggests engaging in activities that nurture our sense of attachment to others. Anything that builds relationships may help combat stress, from simple things like making more eye contact, to more complex practices like being more honest in our interactions and refraining from quickly judging others. She also suggests practices for connecting more deeply with ourselves, like mindfulness meditation and spending time in nature, which may nurture a greater sense of inner security.

Despite increasing perceptions of stress, it’s important to note that people haven’t necessarily lost their optimism. Even given the daunting statistics cited earlier, a full 73 percent of Americans still feel hopeful about the future. Perhaps this hopeful “can-do” spirit is also one of the hallmarks of America.

So, although many see our nation as wounded, Van Deusen reminds us that “good things can come from wounds...From wounds come new life.”

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