Modern life is hectic. If we’re not worrying about how to pay our bills, coping with challenges at work, building a career or bringing up a family, we’re fretting over the news, isolated by pandemics or suffering from abuse on social media.
Stress is everywhere and if you’re having trouble coping, you’re not alone. It can be difficult to relax, unwind and take a breath.
But are we in the 21st century under more strain than our ancestors? How would we cope with the raging plague of the 15th and 16th centuries? Or being a slave transported on a crowded boat across the Atlantic? Or living in London during the Blitz?
Is modern life too stressful?
As you can see stress is nothing new. According to an article in the Lancet in 2015 (1):
“In the early twenty-first century, we are stressed by the global economic recession, job insecurity, marital breakdown, and political and religious extremism. Past populations have been no less stressed by analogous cocktails of warfare, epidemic disease, unemployment, and poverty.”
Today, we are more aware of what stress is and how it can affect us both physically and emotionally. We also have a wider range of tools to help with it from mediation and meditation to counselling and PEMF therapy.
But we still don’t seem to be any happier. In fact, we appear to be quite the opposite.
Why is stress such a problem?
Stress itself is not a health issue. It’s part of a natural response to stimuli around us and comes in many shapes and forms. In small amounts, the fight or flight response is very useful. It focuses the mind, helps us achieve goals and protects us from danger.
Unfortunately, when we are exposed to it almost constantly we end up with a chronic stress and the potential to develop serious physical and mental health problems. Recent statistics suggest that many of us find coping difficult. According to The Mental Health Foundation:
- Nearly three-quarters of us felt overstressed and unable to cope in the past year (2021, the second year of the Covid pandemic).
- Almost half of these individuals said that stress led to unhealthy eating habits and a third noted drinking much more.
- Half said they experienced depressive episodes and 61% reported anxiety issues.
- 32% of those who had felt depressed or anxious admitted to having suicidal thoughts.
While we have more resources to cope with stress and anxiety nowadays and greater knowledge about its harmful effects, we also seem to be more powerless to combat it. We ignore symptoms when we’re under chronic stress. We put sleepless nights down to bad habits, surf the internet in search of temporary relief and hide our feelings away from friends and family. As the American saying goes, we all too often ‘suck it up’.
Causes of stress and anxiety
Modern society is complex. The traditional family has been eroded. We live in a more material world. Many of us have dissatisfying jobs, a growing number can’t make ends meet. In 2022, we’re about to see huge hikes in energy prices, and the cost of our weekly shopping is increasing every day. We’ve been locked away and masked up for the past two years and, on top of all this, Russia has invaded Ukraine and is threatening world mass destruction.
One of the leading causes of chronic stress in the modern world remains poverty. It leads to food insecurity, difficulty finding a place that you can afford to rent and live, social issues such as crime, alcoholism and drug addiction which in turn lead to relationship problems, family breakups and job losses.
It’s not just the poor that suffer, however. Middle- and upper-income families also have their stressors though these can be slightly different. Being stuck in the rat race is a common complaint. The choice is to keep working long hours and ‘improving’ your career to advance or simply stand still and get left behind.
Race and gender are huge underlying causes of chronic stress in modern society. If you are racially or sexually discriminated against at work or the victim of abuse, it can build up steadily as you absorb the stress and try to get on.
Against this backdrop of societal stress, major life events can trigger chronic stress. It could be the loss of your job, death of a loved one or diagnosis of life-changing illness. It might be problems in your relationship or even the arrival of a new child. If we’ve had a past trauma it can follow us into later life and cause serious mental health issues such as PTSD.
Who you are is also likely to affect your response to stressors and dictate how you cope with issues such as anxiety. Your biological makeup, environmental circumstances, social standing and learned responses all play a role.
The true impact of chronic stress on health and well being
The problem with stress is that many of us do tend to absorb it and ‘get on with things’. We don’t have the time to step back, take a deep breath and review what is happening to us. Before we know it, there’s a problem with chronic stress and we can’t seem to roll it back. The health issues this can cause include (3):
- Chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure and, combined with a poor diet, smoking or drinking too much alcohol, you will greatly increase your chance of developing heart disease or suffering a stroke.
- It can make us more anxious and that can cause mental health conditions including depression and phobias, making it difficult to cope with ordinary life.
- Even short term stress can have an effect, depressing the immune system and making us less efficient at fighting off disease and infection.
Chronic stress is a growing issue in modern society and has a wide variety of different causes. While a small amount of stress is a source of motivation and learning, constant exposure that’s outside our control causes physiological changes that can seriously impact health and wellbeing.