Modern life is incredibly stressful, the UK’s biggest ever study revealed this week. As stress is the topic of Mental Heath Awareness Week, expect to be inundated with “top tips” on how to reduce stress. However, the emphasis on lifestyle tips turns attention dangerously away from the “hostile environments” that make modern life more and more unbearable.
Stress refers to the feeling we get when we become overwhelmed and unable to cope with the demands placed on us, whether imagined or real. The survey, commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation, reveals that 74 per cent of us felt so overwhelmed in the last year that we were unable to cope, with 32 per cent of people considering suicide and 16 per cent self-harming as a result. These figures are higher for women than men and for young people (from 18-24) compared to older adults (55+).
Stress can be positive, indeed life-saving – for example, giving us an adrenaline boost to leg it from that approaching tiger or, in today’s world, to deliver that impressive speech. However, prolonged periods of stress have profound effects on the body and the mind. Stress activates something called the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis, triggering one of the Four F’s – a Fight, Flee, Freeze, or Flop reaction. This means that we either become charged for action, in the case of the Fight or Flee response, or we have a more passive response, making us shut down, dissociate, go numb, feel empty and so on, as is the case with Freeze or Flop reactions.
Sow Ay illustrations on mental health
If we are persistently stressed, we can get locked into these responses to stress, massively increasing something called our allostatic load, meaning that our bodies and minds stay “worn and torn”, without the energy or safety to repair. This has huge effects on our immune, gastrointestinal and sleep systems, as well as how we feel about ourselves and the world, increasing the chances that we will suffer – be that from illnesses such as heart disease, or mental breakdown.
Lifestyle tips have their use and revolve around the idea that one should respond to stress by facing it – for example, “taking back control”, exercising and eating well, meditating and creating space for oneself to push back the demands of the world. But if we think about this, the emphasis on tips, supported by the explosion in shelf-help publications, excludes as many people as it helps. For it is 1000 times easier to “take control” if one is in a white-collar job, with the financial and social means to negotiate or outsource daily tasks such as childcare and cleaning than if one is impoverished, isolated and physically and mentally broken down by lifelong, embodied experiences of oppression.
Indeed, this kind of advice is not only alienating for those who are most stressed but maddening, carrying within it an idea that one is responsible for one’s enduring misery.
“Lifestyle drift” is the tendency for public health to focus on individual behaviours and psychology that may be the cause of health inequalities but ignores the drivers of these causes – the causes of causes if you will. This serves the interests of neoliberal governance, at the expense of the wellbeing of the majority. Structural inequalities, childhood adversities and rampant atomised individuality are, the evidence-base shows us, the main drivers of stress. The more unequal a society, the greater the levels of stress as the disenfranchised get pushed down, a chronic experience of being responded to as less important that becomes embodied.
Our young people are more stressed than ever before because they have been pitted against one another, ranked in the education system from the age of six, with social media “likes” a constant reminder of one’s relative success. Financial debt and unstable housing making security unreachable, meaning subjectivities fluctuate between a desperate pressure to succeed and collapse. It is not enough simply to be nowadays – one must be a “walking CV” bent on constant self-improvement.
These are hostile environments to grow up in, to live in, that become imprinted on the psyche and body and that cannot simply be wished away by encouraging everyone to escape within their own, atomised mindfulness bubble. For the world that we live in is brutal right now and simply nastier to some people than others – a wrong that can only be readdressed by levelling society. We need to give everyone the opportunity to feel safe and valued – not for their ability to gain Insta-fame, or work relentlessly to serve the new god of the neoliberal economy, but for their inherent worth.
Lifestyle tips are the new “opium of the people”, creating an illusory happiness by disguising the drivers of misery that make modern life so unbearable. This lifestyle drift is nothing less than dangerous if we allow it to distract us from the pressing need to create a gentler, fairer environment, less hostile to our basic needs to feel connected, valued and safe.
Dr Jay Watts is a consultant clinical psychologist and psychotherapist and honorary senior research fellow at Queen Mary, University of London. If you have been affected by this article, you can contact the following organisations for support: