Stress is the body’s response to threatening events, and in that sense it’s natural. It’s been around as long as we have: part of life and death on this planet.
Some forms of stress are very familiar to us: Serious illness, death of a loved one, unhealed or ongoing abuse and trauma, a change in relationship status (breaking up, getting divorced, getting married, new relationship), and a change in financial status (losing one’s job, getting a new job).
We also have our small, day to day stresses: the commute home from work, paying taxes, little quibbles with our partner, or our mother calling too often.
But there is a general sense among us that stress is growing, in a way that we can’t quite label. Whats going on?
With our world changing rapidly due to technology, we now have new and modern causes of stress. While our ancestors were more concerned about survival, most of us today aren’t terribly concerned with basic physiological needs like food, warmth and safety. Instead, we find our minds imprisoned in a different way. We continually feel encumbered with mental and emotional stressors. Life and the world in general feel like they are moving at an ever-increasing, unsustainable pace. The rate of change is we live in today is phenomenal.
Most of this is due to technology and commercialization. Between the Internet and Aviation industries, we have unlocked an unprecedented acceleration of information, entertainment, social connection, and physical mixing of cultures. This has mostly happened within the past 50-75 years – less than the blink of an eye on the timeline for our species (homo sapiens have been on the planet about 200,000 years).
We might consider ourselves highly intelligent due to all our advances in technology, medicine, communication, and self-understanding. But it remains a fact that our primitive brains have evolved over millennia, not decades. This makes us, biologically, far more equipped for a fairly stable and monotonous type of life than that of jet-setting instagrammers. Our bodies and minds are accustomed to be savannah or forest-dwelling hunters and gatherers whose intelligence and motor dexterity have lifted us to the top of the food chain.
But starting just a few decades ago, industrialism and the technology revolution began. Our brains have not had time to adapt to this frenetic pace of innovation and change. In a way, you could say that technology is now at the top of the food chain – our lives are entirely dependent on it.
Think about it: just 10 years ago, Facebook barely existed – it opened to the public in 2006. Yet today, it and other social media giants run much of our social and informational worlds. Parents are fighting “technology battles” with our children – again, something that barely existed just one generation ago. And many people no longer know how to cook for themselves, they are so reliant on corporations cooking for them.
There is so much information and clutter on the Internet that all of us have information fatigue. There are ads crammed into every nook and cranny of our visual landscape. When you compare our daily lives to 1000 years ago – just .5% of our total existence on this planet – the two look nothing alike.
How do we find a moment of peace and quiet? We can’t drink or massage our stresses away – though many of us have certainly tried. 🙂
We need to identify, and then address, stress at its source.
Here are some modern forms of stress that you are regularly encountering but may not have been aware of. Once you can identify these in your own life, you can take steps to address them one by one. The Stress Management Toolkit can help.
For now, let’s identify the Top 5 modern causes of stress-outs that our ancestors never had to deal with.
#1: WE’RE ENCOUNTERING GREATER DIVERSITY
Like it or not, humans have a tribal mindset. It is deeply engrained in our biology to preserve and protect our own, even at the expense of others. In modern times, tribes are not just physical groups of genetically similar people who share a common way of life. A “tribe” can be a regular group of friends, your family, a church group, sports team, political affiliation, or nationality. It is natural and very tempting for us to be immediately suspicious of anyone who is not from our tribe – someone who does not look like us, act like us, eat like us, or believe like us.
Curiosity and open-mindedness are simply not natural human traits. During the past 200,000 years we have been around, being curious about what’s rustling the bushes or open-minded about new foods often just ended up killing us.
In the movie Croods, the father hyperbolically admonishes his family on a daily basis that curiosity is bad and will get you killed. He teaches them to be afraid of anything and everything strange. (The story goes on with the teenage daughter’s insatiable curiosity, which ends up saving the entire family. It’s a great kid-friendly movie that is deeply relatable on both sides.)
In today’s day and age, the Crood dad’s type of thinking is grossly unnecessary. We don’t generally live in daily fear of being eaten or murdered, because we are protected by homes and societies. By and large, unless we live in refugee, hostile or third world situations, we all live relatively comfortable lives. This is a modern privilege.
However, technologies like global air travel and internet have connected vastly different groups of us. We are now faced with different cultures, beliefs and “tribes” many times a day. And studies show our evolutionary minds are struggling to keep up.
Of course, we all know that the best way forward is to accept and embrace this change. Diversity is a GOOD thing, and further, it is not going away any sooner than technology is. We can begin to rebalance by acknowledging that while other people are different from us, we are also different from them. This makes us all exist on equal ground.
We are all working toward this new, modern mindset at different paces. But in the meantime, being in the presence of difference can be stressful. Think about conversations you have with people who believe differently than you. That one “crazy” family member with odd beliefs. That guy or girl at work who always seems to disagree with what everyone else thinks. Remember all the heated arguments taking place on social media which are nothing more than people who are equally passionate about opposing viewpoints.
It is natural and extremely tempting to reject or even antagonize people who are different than what you’re familiar with. This is the driving factor behind fanatical sports fans, opposing high schools, and more dangerous conflicts like religious wars and belief in racial supremacy. Black and white thinking has been a survival tactic to us, but it is inherently stressful. It causes us to fight, when fighting is not always necessary nor beneficial.
Because we are living in a world that is becoming a melting pot more and more with each passing hour, it has become a common occurrence to encounter dozens of “other tribes” every day. Yet our evolutionary brains may be equipped to handle such diversity only occasionally.
This upheaval – this lack of stability in a way – is tough to deal with sometimes. Yet it is our new normal. So give yourself some compassion when you find yourself encountering too much difference, too quickly. We all have to balance the need for greater open-mindedness, with the need to have a home base and identity.
If you simply find yourself in too much of a melting pot, or too caught up in arguments and issues – its beneficial to tap out for awhile. Turn off social media and the news, avoid watercooler discussions at work. You have to take care of yourself first before you can reach out to others. Just be sure to not make your isolation permanent. The world needs you. 🙂
#2: WE’RE OBSESSED WITH SUPERFICIAL PERFECTION
This is an area where we must look advertising and social media square in the eye. As we’ve mentioned quite a bit, the United States is a capitalistic economy that, over time, has become overrun by corporations. As some corporations got bigger, they bought out or pushed out smaller companies. Now in many industries, all that is left are the big fish. And these big fish have very deep pockets.
The more money a corporation has, the more power and influence they have. Corporations advertise heavily, they donate to politicians, they influence our nation’s laws and policies. We really can’t overstate their influence in our day to day lives.
Corporate Advertising’s Role
Capitalism was a fairly self-balancing system until advertising started getting out of control when the big companies started getting bigger. Advertising in the US really took off in the mid 1960’s, when color TV’s became more prevalent in American households.
Advertising today works by convincing us that we need something, whether or not we truly do. It could be the latest gadget or iPhone upgrade. Or it could be a certain aesthetic look – for 6-pack abs, perfectly styled hair, a perfectly styled home, or even perfectly styled food.
Unfortunately, in the areas of health and fitness, a lot of companies have chosen to put forth the messaging that we are not OK as we are. That we need to be more, do more, have more. Because if we are only more perfect, then we’ll be happier. This has led to out-of-control consumerism, in both material possessions, but also in the obsessive need for glamorous experiences. We’ve become consumerist even with what were once simple pleasures, like food and drink.
After decades of this messaging being constantly fed into our brains, a lot of us now have completely skewed ideas of what healthy standards really are.
Social Media: An Individual’s Advertising Platform
In addition to corporate advertising, we also are inundated with social media. Social media is really just social-proofing. It is a form of advertising as well. It is one person advertising to another person how great their lives are. It was meant to stay in touch, but it has become the desire to gain esteem in the eyes of everyone else.
This results in a lot of images being put forth that do not come close to reflecting the reality of someone’s life, health, or struggles. Social media is the highlight reel, a mask. We all know this, and yet we continue to scroll every day anyway, comparing our messy real lives to perfection-shots of others.
This is a new stressor to us. Facebook was launched to the public only back in 2006. It’s only 12 years old – but it currently boasts over 2.3 BILLION, monthly active users on Facebook. There are also 1 Billion active users on Instagram. That is absolutely incredible.
This idea that we have to be perfect – we have to look perfect, act perfect, dress perfect, have perfect makeup and hair, live a life of glamour and travel, have the cutest pets and kids, has completely overtaken our lives. We expect ourselves to never have a bad hair day or serve a magazine-worthy dinner. And a lot of that expectation is thanks to our peers on social media.
What do we do about it? Like most things in life, the answer is simple but not easy: opting out. Just realize it’s part of a game, and step off the hamster wheel of consumerism and comparison. Perfection is not attainable by anyone, no matter how pretty their pictures look on Insta. You must deeply accept this truth and use it to battle comparison and self-perfection.
If you find yourself really struggling with your self esteem or the need to be perfect, try scaling back on your usage of social media. Turn off advertising messages. Mute your TV or radio when ads come on. Unfollow accounts you notice bring feelings of envy or panic from lack of keeping up.
You should only be around people and accounts that inspire and encourage you. If you find something bumming you out or making you feel “less than”, just stop participating in that message. It truly matters what we feed our brains. They become our normal – even if they are anything but.
Final note on this topic: this is an ABSOLUTELY CRUCIAL message to teach our children. If we are struggling as adults, can you imagine what their young, undeveloped brains are going through? Please teach your children that comparing themselves to other people is not healthy, and take measures to limit their exposure to advertising and social media. Give their brain a fighting chance until it matures.
#3: WE FACE INCREASING DEMANDS FROM OTHERS
In the rat race of technological innovation and information warp-speed, WE are also being expected to keep up – with our knowledge, our productivity, and our performance. Schools now are passing out homework packets in kindergarten. Kids are undergoing rigorous “standardized testing” in first grade. They are being expected to sit quietly without talking or moving at their desks for hours at a time – despite the fact that children are naturally boisterous, loud, giggly, and energetic.
Adults are in the same boat. Whether you are a stay at home parent, a labor worker, or on the corporate hamster wheel, you’re being expected to do your job more perfectly, work longer hours, produce better output, and in general act like a computer or a machine. A full 40% of adults admit to being chronically stressed at work, and around 25% of all adults say that work is the biggest stressor in their lives!
Your personal life may not be much better. Because of the ease of information around, you may be expected to *personally* know more as well. Your friends or the internet community may scoff at you if you don’t have hundreds of facts and figures memorized, whether its a repertoire of 10 cookie recipes for every occasion, or reciting the title and release date of every David Bowie album. Your partner may be less than impressed if you don’t have Julia Child cooking skills or Casanova-quality bedroom technique.
It’s no wonder all of us feel busier and busier – we are being expected to DO more, WORK harder, and KNOW everything – all the time. But that’s totally unnatural, not to mention unsustainable. When do we have time to relax and just be us?
Oftentimes we give in to the pressure to be/know/do more, thinking that it falls under the umbrella of “self improvement”, and will make us healthier or wealthier in the long run. But its all too easy to let self improvement become self obsession. It’s all too easy to cave under the pressure of your boss’s, spouse’s, or parents’ demands to try harder, be better, and stop inconveniencing them with your imperfections. Yet this only becomes an endless rat race in people-pleasing. It not only utterly wears us down, it completely breaks our spirit.
To cope with these pressures, it is really important to learn the value of boundaries, and to practice cultivating them. It is OK to say NO to society, NO to your boss, NO to your child’s 1st grade teacher who thinks she needs ADD medication because she can’t sit still for 3 hours straight. You can even say NO to the latest self-help book if you feel like it’s not healthy for you. There’s a fine line between self improvement and low self esteem.
Remember: It is OK to JUST BE YOU. It is OK to be average. It is OK to excel in one or two things, and to totally suck at ten other things. And it is OK to get out there, try your best every day, fail sometimes, fail often times, and meanwhile, tell the rest of the world to shut it. You have full permission. Take care of your mental health first, and protect the sanctity of your self respect, self compassion, and rest/recovery time.
No one’s voice should matter more than your own. Do not surrender your own judgment to the whims of the world – it will only be you who suffers.
#4: WE WEAR “BUSY” LIKE IT’S A STATUS SYMBOL
Most of us have a standard response to the question of “How are things?” We will reply something like “Oh, so busy!” But do you know someone who literally brags about how busy he or she is constantly, as though it makes them superior? Isn’t it annoying? Unfortunately, this practice is on the rise – but it is not healthy for a number of reasons.
If you truly are “way too busy”, and if life truly is “totally crazy”, then where does balance fall in your life? Busyness is a stressor all by itself. No one is the Energizer bunny, so don’t burn the candle at both ends. Rest, relaxation and connection time are crucial to happiness and fulfillment in life. If your calendar is perpetually over-crowded, make it a practice to book out chunks of time for yourself.
Respect for Others
Leaning on the “busy” excuse too frequently can be disrespectful. We all have 24 hours in a day. Some people claim busyness as a means of self-importance or status symbol to others. They may think that others are in awe of their schedule, or feel lucky to get some time with them. However, it almost always have the opposite effect. The message they hear is that you think you’re too important for them.
The same thing happens when cancel, frequently change, or are chronically late to dates or meetings. This is a terrible habit some people get into. It doesn’t matter how “crazy things are for you”. Things are “crazy” for the people waiting on you too. Making this a habit only fosters resentment and disconnection in relationships, both personal and professional.
Out of respect to others, we need to stop equating being busy with being important. Life is pretty equally busy for everyone. Those who care, make an effort – or they simply say they can’t. Learning some time management techniques can help manage a busy schedule.
Perhaps the most insidious reason why many of us purposefully keep our lives so busy is out of active avoidance to ourselves and owning our stories. We may be distracting ourselves past from pain or grief, or from a strained current relationship. We may be really uncomfortable when things slow down and we are simply left alone with ourselves and our thoughts.
This is really dangerous, because many of us have past grief or trauma that we absolutely need to heal from. Or we may have a relationship in desperate need of our time and attention. The only way to heal these wounds is to turn and face them. To stop being so busy, and let our feelings catch up so that we can feel and process them. In a desperate effort to keep pain buried, we may stuff our social calendars so full that we are simply falling into bed late at night, maybe with the help of alcohol or sleeping pills, only to jump out of bed the next morning and immediately hit the ground running.
Taking some time out to be with yourself, reflect on life, and journal about your feelings is crucially important. Refusing to do these things out of fear is going to lead to numbness and temporary avoidance. But our minds will always know it is there, and the situation typically comes to a head all on its own anyway. This may come about when a partner finally decides to leave an absentee relationship, or when deep trauma finally manifests itself in physical ways, such as general anxiety or IBS.
Avoiding deep emotional pain is likely to lead to massive anxiety and chronic stress, whether we acknowledge it or not. If you feel that you can’t face a situation alone, lean on a trusted friend or professional advisor for help and guidance.
#5: WE ARE UNHEALTHIER THAN EVER
More and more Americans are struggling with their health, despite access to better healthcare. We have almost limitless food options, but we are opting for less nutritious food than ever before. More of us are eating fast food, processed food, and high sugar diets. Almost no one is getting enough fiber to help move toxins through the body. All of this is leading to heart disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity. Most heart-breakingly, it is also making our children sick. Childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes is skyrocketing.
Many Americans are stressed out over their weight. They feel slow, sluggish, lethargic, and foggy. They are dealing with massive anxiety, chronic fatigue, and aches and pains that often aren’t diagnosed. They are frequently given a pharmaceutical or told its all in their heads, and sent out the door.
It’s no wonder we are stressed out!
All this weight of constant diversity, societal expectation and self-perfectionism is on our shoulders, and we’re not even feeling physically at our best to tackle it.
A lot of the food we are eating today is fake or toxic. A lot of the stuff in processed food, from chemicals to heavy metals, have been proven to cause anxiety, depression and mood instabilities. And if you are dealing with stress via use of drugs, particularly depressants such as alcohol, then you are doing your brain no favors. You are just treating your stress with a powerful neurotoxin. That’s like putting gasoline onto a bonfire.
All of this comfort eating and drinking can easily lead to a feeling of utter defeat, hopelessness and exhaustion. This is not what we want for you. This is not what YOU want for you. You only get one life to live – why would you spend it simply medicating yourself in and out of consciousness?
Whole food and hydration is nourishing and healing. Believe in its power. You can feel 180 degrees different in just a week or two of different eating. You can heal gut issues, hormonal imbalances and turn around anxiety. Your body is an amazing machine and it wants to perform at its best. Eating and drinking healthy whole things, and getting frequent exercise, are excellent ways to clarify your body and mind so that it can perform at its best and better cope with stress.
If you are struggling with stress and anxiety in your own life, try reading our Stress Management Toolkit for busy professionals.
You can also read through 5 Levels of Emotional Health to help assess where you are currently and learn some specific emotional wellness techniques that meet you where you are.