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.