What we can learn from previous generations of heightened anxiety

One of my first assignments as a freelance writer was on the “stress” economy – a burgeoning industry that churns out products catered towards combating the proliferation of unhealthy anxiety in society. The space has gotten so big that it now has 30 different sub-categories, is one of the most popular app sections, and has over 10,000 meditation gadgets.

Specific products include a unicorn cat with a scent of strawberry or a comb that tells you something positive with each brush of your hair. There is a company called Body Vibes, which for only $40, offers you a pack of stickers that will “rebalance the energy frequencies in your body”. And for a small price of $10,000 an hour you can get two hours of personal goat yoga training.

Under the umbrella of the stress economy also includes break rooms – businesses that have open spaces of random objects for individuals to smash with a bat, hammer, and in some places, even a gun. Some college campuses now employ “stress relief experts” (a trendy profession better known for their lack of any medical training) from so called stress-relief consulting shops.

The realization around the enormity of research I had to conduct about stress…left me stressed.

Many credit TV writer Alex Carswell for birthing tension-defusing capitalism. In 1988, after a stressful phone call with his boss, Mr. Carswell, reaching peak combustion, threw a knife at a photo of his mother. As a result, he was inspired to create the first stress ball in modern history (the Han dynasty in China maintained a sense of calm by squeezing a clump of walnuts).

Media outlets tabbed this time the ‘Age of Stress.’

The age of stress has returned with vengeance. In 2017, the American Psychology Association found that nearly 8 out of 10 Americans experience some sort of stress, a continual uptick since the inception of measuring this variable. One sixth suffer from prolonged periods of anxiety and depression, and like every negative statistic in America, low-income and individuals of color disproportionately suffer the most. These groups are most likely to contend with the three main causes of stress –– a lack of control, predictability, and social support.

Specifically, work related stress has hampered a larger subset of America than our previous stress decade. Americans with over ten years of work experience, by-and-large note that stress has negatively impacted their personal and work life more than it ever has before.

And in the last few months, Derek Thompson’s article, Workism, and Anne Helen Petersen’s piece, Millennial Burnout, covering the open secret about Millennials and the unprecedented strain derived from their jobs, are two of the most read online articles this year.

As the issue of excessive stress re-emerges, it makes sense to balance our chakras in order to untangle the nuances and nuisances of what we’ve learned since the last era of anxiety.

First, in doses, stress has benefits. For adults, periods of mental duress can often help develop healthy priorities and build resiliency. In children, intermittent bouts of cognitive tension teach them to grapple with unexpected events, better combat illnesses, and (in some conditions) accelerate development skills.

But there are obvious downsides when stress becomes more than episodic. Non-life-threatening stressors, such as workplace demands or financial turmoil, can eventually be lethal. Chronic stress can shut down the digestive system and increase your risk of diabetes and blood pressure as well as reduce certain parts of the brain.

Admittedly, this isn’t revolutionary information.

For those who lost a loved one, had a bad breakup, got laid off, are grappling with student debt, are financially unstable, are fighting with their spouses or family, or troubled by the decline of Western Democracy have endured anxiety. In short, we’ve all been stressed.

The question is, what can the original age of of stress teach us about our today’s hyper-tense period?

As of now, no suggested solution is conclusive.

Remedies such as increased wealth, exercising meditation, exercise, healthy socializing, and greater access to community services have shown to be effective in some situations and for some time. But, by no means are they a silver bullet to annihilate life’s apprehension.  

Further, accessories and gadgets found under the guise of the ‘stress economy’ have shown to be mere placebo products void of any ability to subdue tension. Friends, please stop buying Gwyneth Paltrow Goop rebalancing stickers.

What may help is understanding the causes and inequities of stress. All of us can take stock of the situations we voluntarily enter and do a retroactive risk/benefit analysis to see if those encounters are potentially avoidable or if our response to these stressful situations can be amended for better results.

For example, forming healthy social circles is crucial. That starts with deciphering the difference between a friend with some disdainful qualities, but overall decent human, versus someone with some decent qualities, but is overall a disdainful person. Granted, this is a very difficult task.

Further, there must be a broader acknowledgement that not all stress is created, or felt, equally. There is a stark difference between stress from a life lived with less than ideal elements in stable conditions and anxiety from suboptimal conditions in an unstable environment. Meaning, stress derived from poverty is different and weightier than stress derived from chasing a goal in financially secure conditions.

In addition, as Mr. Thompson and Ms. Helen Peterson’s essays highlight, using work as a means to escape extreme tension is counterproductive. Trying to gain control, predictability, and unconditional support in the workplace can often be futile or often amplify one’s stress levels.

One is incredibly lucky if they find that in their jobs.  However, managing and maintaining realistic expectations around what our place of employment can offer in terms of fulfillment will likely assist in taming stress levels.

What we have learned is that if we soberly face adversity together there is some hope that life, and our own personal wellness, eventually improves.

After two months of no pay in New York, I was eager to finally deliver my work on the anxiety economy and collect my first paycheck in the Big Apple. Upon arriving at my boss’ office, he notified me his magazine was no longer interested in running my piece at that time. My contract determined they had the sole rights to my research, and I couldn’t publish my findings on my blog for twelve months. Rent was due in three days and I was already behind in payment.

I was worried. I was scared. I was stressed.

At the time I didn’t long for a remedy, a yoga workout, less of a challenge in my new career, or even better cash flow. What I wished I knew then was that I was not, and never will, be the sole owner of this level of pain. That, in truth, there is a collective uneasiness about grappling with anxiety. That no one, no matter how much we’ve thought about this issue, has a solution for our unhealthy level of stress.

After another year of research and reflection on this topic, my only hope is that we slowly gain a broader comprehension around the dynamics around stress. That it be won’t wiped away with gimmicky products and bits of it can positively galvanize us.

Moreover, I hope we recognize that we must all come together and recalibrate our approach to dealing with this heightened level of anxiety currently demoralizing us. That we embrace the very real fact that we are never alone in this common pain because stress, in all its triggers and manifestations, is a universal struggle. If we don’t accept this truth, the next era of systemic anxiety will be even more threatening to future generations. And no one can handle that level of stress.

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