One Nation Under Stress

The title of this post comes from a new book reviewed on NPR, One Nation Under Stress:  The Trouble With Stress as an Idea, by Dana Becker, PhD.

According to Dr. Becker, “stress” is a recent concept.  The first article on stress in the New York Times was published in 1976.  The first diagnoses of “nervous disorders” or “neurasthenia,” came from the work of Dr. George Beard ca 1869.  In the NPR interview, Becker says that physicians of the time considered “American nervousness” to come from outside factors, related to the increasing pace of life after the civil war.  “Stress,” as we understand it today, is the polar opposite.

Now we have internalized stress, focusing on the risks to our health and the ways we should cope with it, through diet, exercise, yoga, and so on.  Our experience of stress derives from our ideas of stress, Becker says.  The internal emphasis on health is necessary, but we let it divert us from questioning the external causes of stress.  She gives an example in the NPR interview: many articles are written to help working mothers cope with stress – far fewer are written about the need for affordable daycare.  We may eat kale and do yoga to survive the 24/7 world, but we seldom ask why this is the norm and what the alternatives are.

This argument echoes a major concern of James Hillman, who I frequently write about here.  Though he was once Director of Studies at the Jung Institute in Zurich, in 1992 he co-authored a book called We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World is Getting Worse.  In it, he said:

“Every time we try to deal with our outrage over the freeway, our misery over the office and the lighting and the crappy furniture, and the crime in the streets, whatever – every time we try to deal with that by going to therapy with our rage and our fear, we deprive the political world of something.”

In her NPR interview, Dana Becker presented a balanced view of stress – it’s fine to treat the symptoms, which are personal, as long as we don’t gloss over the underlying causes, many of which are not.  The promise of new view of a modern ailment is enough to put One Nation Under Stress near the top of my “to read” list.

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5 Responses to One Nation Under Stress

  1. Fascinating. A philosophical paradigm shift. Thanks for giving me a new idea to think about.

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    • I’m really curious to read this book after thinking about it for several days. I keep recalling the “learned helplessness” experiments of the late 60’s – I wonder if a similar condition hasn’t chilled the body politic?

      When dogs were subjected to shocks they could not avoid, they developed symptoms that parallel those of clinical depression. The symptoms eased when the dogs learned ways to avoid the shock.

      My question is, have people really decided that stress is all on them, or have they given up hope of affecting public outcomes – understandable in the wake of the non-event that was the 2012 election. And if a senator can’t get a domestic drone policy statement, what hope do we have? Etc, ad nauseum.

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  2. Adam says:

    There are a lot of things wrong with the way that our analysis of psychology affects our lives, and this is one of them. This sounds like an interesting read that I’ll have to look into.

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    • I’m very curious to read it, since the brief interview and reviews present a balanced view that, much as I respected James Hillman, he sometimes lacked. I remember once in a lecture, he went on one of his rants against meditation. I wanted to speak up and say that a few workouts a week or 20 minutes of sitting before work do not contradict a concern with the world, but I sat on my hands. The guy had such a powerful intellect that I wasn’t going to risk a public battle of words.

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  3. Rosi says:

    Another thought-provoking post, Morgan. I will have to check this one out. Thanks for telling me about it.

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