Covid 19 has really bought mental health to the forefront of our conversations. Current opinion on the impact and outlook for the debilitating effect of stress on our society has never looked bleaker. The question remains, however, are we really more stressed than ever? And, if so, why is this so and what can be done?
On the face of it, prevailing beliefs do not appear completely unfounded. There is indeed plenty of data that seems to confirm our suspicions. Gallup’s Negative Experience Index found that the Index has reached an all-time high and for stress, four in ten adults worldwide said they had recently experienced a lot of worry (42%) and stress (41%).
Diving into the data we find that it’s not just adults who are feeling more stressed than ever. In 2018, the American College Health Association surveyed more than 26,000 college students and found that approximately 40-60% reported significant episodes of anxiety or depression during the year—an increase of about 10% from 2013. Furthermore, the same trends are being observed in university students here in the UK. Increasing stress is also observable in the workplace: the 2022 Gallup State of the Workplace Report found that 43% of workers report being ‘very stressed’ at the workplace the previous day. So, are we correct, are we really more stressed than ever?
Why is self reported stress increasing?
The reasons for self-reported measures of stress increasing worldwide are multifaceted and complex. However, some studies can give us insight into what’s going on. Research that compared adult stress levels in 2010 to 1990 revealed some interesting findings. Given that the study took place in 2010 in the wake of the Great Recession, it pointed to the economic decline and job insecurity as a reason for increased stress. Interestingly, this is something that can also be said for 2022 as economies coming out of the pandemic are facing rampant inflation and supply chain issues. Secondly, it highlights rapid modernisation and individualisation as reasons for increased stress. Society is less connected at the grassroots and people feel alienated and mistrustful of those in their immediate proximity. In short, our communities are fractured and less meaningful which makes dealing with life’s challenges that much harder. Lastly, they point to the overwhelming pace of technological change as a reason for increased stress – we seem simply unable to cope with the rate of such change.
It is at this point that we run into an issue. The fact remains that our lives are undeniably more prosperous than ever in human history. Our pre-industrial ancestors were lucky to reach 30 on average and endured unimaginable living conditions. Whether that be poor sanitation, poor diet or the constant threat of famine or war, life was brutal for most. Conversely, across the modern world, we are seeing record life expectancies. If we continue in our march towards the UN Development Goals, we could see absolute poverty eradicated in our lifetime. Our lives are so much better but paradoxically, we feel more stressed. The reason for this may seem strange but we are not equipped with the resilience to deal with stressors. Resilience can come from spending time with loved ones, exercising and sleeping to name a few. When our ancestors were out hunting with their tribe or tirelessly tilling the soil, they were unknowingly hitting these checkboxes. This gave them the resilience to deal with the stressors of their time. Unfortunately, much of our modern lifestyle does the opposite. We eat and sleep poorly, get less outdoor exercise and spend less time with loved ones. Thanks to this, we lack the resilience to deal with the stressors that we face. In essence, our stress is less determined by the stressors we face and more by our resilience.
Are we more stressed than ever?
We certainly read numerous scary statistics and reports on stress that encourage us to believe so. The irony here is that just like bleak geopolitical events, hearing the news that stress is worse than ever is in itself a stressor. The current narrative on stress does nothing other than make us feel more stressed. The solution is not to cover our ears and ignore the issue. Instead, we need to place resilience at the heart of our discussions about stress. This is not only more accurate but also a more positive, encouraging outlook. This is because we can take steps to boost our resilience and dramatically improve our stress management.
We may believe that we are more stressed than ever, but modern neuroscience has given us some insight into what is actually going on. Although some stressors are widely societal and hard to tackle on an individual basis, there are steps that we can all take to increase our resilience to stress. The cutting-edge work of neuroscientists can better inform wellbeing measures taken by individuals and their employers. By objectively measuring stress to pinpoint which stressors most affect people and where they can take steps to tackle these stressors head-on, Biostress can be a key part of any organisation’s fight against the stress epidemic.