It was recently reported in The Guardian that three in four Britons have felt overwhelmed by stress in the past year. Over in the USA, there’s a similar picture. The American Psychological Association’s 2015 ‘Stress in America’ snapshot found that 75% of adults reported experiencing moderate to high levels of stress in the month prior to the survey, and nearly half reported that their stress had increased from 2014. But with constantly-improving technology, healthcare and living standards making our lives more comfortable than they have ever been, where is all this stress coming from?
What is Stress?
When conducting surveys, researchers can find the experience of stress hard to measure because there isn’t a universally accepted definition of what stress actually is. However, as most research relies on the self-assessment of survey respondents – who are reporting simply on their own feelings and their personal definition of stress – it is perhaps most useful to think of stress as “physical, mental, or emotional strain or tension.” This is stress in its negative form – something that makes us feel fearful, under pressure and strung out.
Stress, however, can also be observed in our physical reactions. Rather than an ethereal emotion (although it certainly involves plenty of them), stress is a quantifiable physiological response, involving the activation of the sympathetic nervous system and adrenaline secretion in the “fight or flight” response. The reaction begins in the amygdala, a part of our brain which triggers the hormonal cascade designed to make us most able to either run away from – or fight – an imminent threat.
It also triggers the lesser known “freeze” response. If you’ve ever been on a climb, looked down, and found yourself completely unable to do anything but cling on in the ensuing fear, that’s the freeze response kicking in – evolutionarily determined to aid our survival (although it may not feel that way). The result of stress in the short term is often an increase in heart rate, heavier breathing, shaking, a loss of appetite, and tunnel vision.
The Positive Side of Stress
A complicating factor is that the physical reaction of stress isn’t always negative – a phenomenon known as good stress, or “eustress.” For example, a person who’s about to go on a date with someone they really like will be technically “stressed” (with quickened pulse and hormonal change) but finds the experience quite exhilarating, whereas someone waiting outside a dentist will be experiencing something far less enjoyable.
Additionally, stress is sometimes a completely natural and appropriate response to certain situations. Feeling stressed out when faced with the prospect of a tooth being pulled is an unpleasant, but still a temporary and not necessarily inherently harmful part of life. Stress can also improve our performance, such as the rush of adrenaline in a job interview, which sharpens our focus and ensures we think on our feet.
Living with Chronic Stress
The problems associated with stress begin to manifest themselves if we experience it over the long term. If we feel stressed most of time, we can begin to experience chronic digestive problems, loss of libido, stomach ulcers, increased risk of hypertension, exhaustion and many other negative effects. The physiological state of stress was, in our evolutionary history, only ever experienced in the short term, dissipating as threats passed and we had the chance to relax. We were never meant to be constantly in high alert – but for many, this is the reality of modern life.
Considering that we generally don’t worry about the threat of starvation, physically fighting off rivals or being eaten by predators, the question still remains as to what causes our stress in modern society? There are many factors, and it would be difficult to explore them all, but it seems that our evolutionary flight or fight response – only triggered in our evolutionary ancestors in moments of high danger and profound social isolation– is set off by various everyday aspects of our modern lives.
For example, while we may not need to be personally concerned about a vital crop failing like our forebears were, many people struggle financially day to day. More than 43 million Americans – roughly 13.5 percent of the entire population – were living in poverty in 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Poverty is a huge source of stress, while debt (an ever more present partof life in the modern world) is another, with 56% of Americans in debt reporting that it has negatively impacted their lives.
According to UK charity The Trussel Trust, the use of their food banks increased from 41,000 instances to 1.2 million since 2010, which adds food insecurity as a factor of stress in some sections of the population. The American Psychological Association also found that two-thirds of U.S. adults (66 percent) cite the cost of health insurance as a stressor for themselves, their loved ones, or in general when asked about specific health issues that cause them stress. This stress about the cost of health insurance seems to affect Americans at all income levels.
Having one or more long-term health conditions, such as cancer, diabetes or heart issues, is also a big risk factors for stress. Improvements in healthcare mean that many of us can survive – potentially for decades – after being diagnosed with a long-term or chronic conditions. This is a wonderful thing which has transformed many lives, but it is also true that living with these ailments can be stressful, expensive, and essentially gives us a lot to worry about.
For example, it’s often expected that someone who survives cancer should feel nothing but gratitude, but they can often fear the cancer returning and be understandably resentful that they had to experience it at all.
For the three in four Britons who report having been overwhelmed by stress in the past year, work issues, including working outside normal hours and a poor work-life balance, are the second most common cause of stress. The 24-culture of work that’s come with the digital revolution, where we are all just an email away, as well as the proliferation of jobs with insecure hours and contracts, has complicated the working world and gradually eroded the idea of the nine-to-five.
But while these are all quantifiable and clear causes of stress, there are also less tangible stressors which make the modern world an uncomfortable place to live. Social media has made it necessary to maintain a “public face” even in our private moments, gives us endless opportunities to compare our lives to others, and boils our popularity and social success down to an arbitrary number of Likes, Followers, and Friends. We are also, through the Internet, subjected to more advertising than ever, stoking our insecurities and encouraging dissatisfaction with life as it is.
Tackling the Stress Epidemic
Yoga therapists and teachers often encounter the impact of stress amongst their students. Many people turn to yoga because they are feeling the strain of modern living, while yoga therapists specialize in easing the symptoms of disorders like anxiety and depression, which are exacerbated and even triggered by stress. While many of the changes which will make life less stressful for the majority of the population would have to be enacted on a societal level, on an individual level choosing to take up yoga is an effective way to manage our stress.
Stress is a mind-body issue, intimately connected to both our emotions and physiological responses, with both informing the other. We may have a worrying thought which then triggers our body’s stress response, or an outside influence may trigger our body’s stress response and lead to a deluge of worried thoughts. Whatever comes first, when it comes to stress, what goes on in our minds and the physical response of our bodies are tied entirely up in each other.
Yoga is a way to improve our mind-body health and stress resilience, and has a variety of health benefits that are linked to its potential to reduce our stress, even at a molecular level. Factors such as finances, ill health and poor work-life balance may be difficult to tackle, but self-care practices such as yoga are a way to build resilience to stress, and ultimately make our lives as calm and happy as it’s possible for them to be.
Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Heather Mason, a yoga teacher and founder of The Minded Institute, a center of yoga therapy in London exploring the great potential of yoga in healthcare. Heather became interested in the use of mind-body therapies after her own experience of depression and anxiety, training over many years and across the globe in yoga and yoga therapy. Follow Heather on Twitterand Facebook.