15. Modern is more stressful

Apr 13, 2020

How is modern more stressful? 

 

Many modern stressors simply mimic danger whereas the responses we developed were to actual danger. That traffic jam is not as threatening as the pack of hungry predators. Your boss’s bad mood pales in comparison to the dangers of an unsheltered snow storm. Our modern situations seem stressful psychologically but they don’t present the same physical threat we have grown accustomed to. Today our stressors are small but constant. In the past they were big and random. Regardless of if they are real or imagined, acute or chronic, stress can make us fatter. 

 

If stress causes fat gain then our epidemic of obesity means our world is more stressful than it was in the past. This seems far fetched. Can today’s world be as anxiety ridden as that of our ancestors who didn’t have close to the amenities we do? Is it as stressful now as during the World Wars, plague, or famines? 

 

The answer is yes. Technology has released us from certain pressures like wondering where our next meal will come from or how we will heat our home during a winter. But life today contributes small stressors like no other time in history: long commutes, colonoscopies, job security, kids, and outliving our money are the tip of the iceberg. Incessant beeps and prods from cell phones add another compounding layer. Today we experience more chronic stress than all the people in all of history. We evolved to confront and act on acute or isolated stressors: the impending storm, threatening animal, or to be timely, the pressure of a date. Chronic and repeated stresses keep cortisol and insulin levels high. This pair along with a cascade of their secondary effects destroy the health in our healthy bodies. So what makes our modern, comfortable lives chronically stressful? 

 

  1. No downtime. The Oxford Dictionary credits the first reference of “24/7” to a Sports Illustrated article from 1983. A basketball player described his jumpshot in such a way to denote that he was ‘always on.’ The concept has leaked its way into modern business and life. Being ‘on’ never lets up now. We have longer hours at work, cell phones connecting us all the time, thousands of entertainment channels, Facebook, Instagram, tablets, e readers, and the rest of the constantly upgraded landscape of technology. We have never been ‘24/7’ but modern culture encourages just that.

  2. We think there are more threats. Stress is a perception, not a measure of the actual threat. We stress about things that probably aren’t that threatening to us. This is primarily due to sensationalism in the media and our propensity to check what’s going on around us on the ‘24/7’ news networks.

  3. Standards have changed. The pressure to look good or be rich is greater than ever today. Media has made us aware of other people’s lives through filtered lenses. They want beautiful people in their advertisements and marketing. Look at popular magazines like People or US Weekly. Have you ever seen straighter teeth or such an absence of pores? Photo shoots for social media, tagging on Facebook, and everyone marketing themselves as a brand has increased the stress of looking good. California is full of older people who look like teenagers with smooth skin, big brite eyes and potentially surgical enhancements. Keeping up with the Jones’ has never been more demanding of the body or soul. The stress is amplified to those in poorer countries as they have a front row seat to a pageant they can’t participate in.

  4. Expectations have changed too. I think more than most people in history we expect to be happy. Not even three hundred years ago moms in western cultures kept from emotionally attaching to their babies because too many of them died in their first few years. Now we assume our children will outlive us. In a similar vein we expect our doctors to cure us and employers to pay us. We believe that if we play by the rules life will be good and we will be happy. But that’s not how it works. We live in a universe that is completely indifferent to our species. Our happiness is a figment of our imagination and as such is up to us to create. The sky rocketing expectations of what makes for a happy and good life aren’t helping.

  5. Even good things can be stressful if too many of them happen at once. Maybe you’ve seen a list of events that assigned stress points to common occurrences like death of a loved one, being fired from a job, or getting a troubling medical diagnosis. They are accompanied by some not so seemingly stressful ones: having a baby, buying a house, getting married. We may not lose as many babies in their first few years of life but we more than make up for it today with serial marriages and multiple homesteads. We have an accelerated ability to change big aspects of our lives our ancestors didn’t.

  6. We have less influence over our work. Many professions depend on the cooperation of others to get the job done well. The medical doctor is not only working long hours but can potentially harm someone with a wrong decision. Even if all the right choices are made patients still die. In that regard doctors are powerless to determine many outcomes. Dozens of careers like this attract sensitive people who will suffer if their services are not well received. Burnout is inevitable.

    Power struggles are not new. They have been around as long as we have. Part of the issue now more than ever is that we don’t compare our positions to the local group or tribe, we compare to the whole world. It’s hard to compete when the planet is your playing field. And competition matters because depending on research has found status impacts appetite.The lower we fall in the hierarchies we belong to higher the likelihood we succumb to night time binge eating. Lower occupational position also predicts bigger waists and body mass index readings.

  7. We have created a bunch of new stressors. Having a child who is sick is stressful enough, having one with cancer is unimaginable. It’s been studied though and parents of children with cancer exercise less, sit around more, and depending on the person under eat or over eat. Regardless, they are heavier and less healthy than parents of healthy kids. 

    Cancer screening saves lives but also adds untold stress. Pap smears, mammograms, colonoscopies, and prostate exams are all advancements of the twentieth century that undoubtedly improve our health care as a whole but consider the angst they provoke in those waiting for test results. Or in the residual anxiety researchers found was left three years after false positive cancer scares.

    Noise causes surges in cortisol even when we sleep. Modern noise makers like factories, jackhammers, washing machines, vacuums, and traffic are all relatively new inventions from the industrial revolution. Few of us have ever experienced a city without manufactured noise. To do so one may pay a visit to Venice, Italy where waterways replace roads and you ride in gondolas instead of cars.

    Driving doesn’t just produce noise. The act itself is stressful. Think about thousands of people flying past each other at sixty miles per hour sometimes no more than 6 inches apart in two thousand pound gas engine metal boxes and you will immediately recognize the danger. Us moderns are so accustomed to the act we routinely fall asleep behind the wheel, operate while intoxicated, and engage in multitasking while driving. The system that keeps us in check is a series of painted lines on the ground with various lights and signs that all of us are expected to know, and trust the others hurling themselves around us similarly know as well. One hundred years ago driving an automobile to and from could be a full time occupation. Now it’s what we do to get to and from work. 

 

Our twenty-first century environment is rife with stressors our ancestors didn’t have to deal with.  Each of us responds differently to them but the release is the same: cortisol. Too much of it not only diminishes our health but can directly contribute to getting fatter. 

Stress demands a response. There is a problem using food for the response. Seeking comfort can quickly lead to obesity and we are avoiding the underlying issue. We must be active in our stress reduction activities. The following are research backed ways to alleviate our modern chronic stress.

Hire a therapist. Help someone. Breathe. Pray. Meditate. Neuroplasticity shows your brain structure is malleable and with practice can improve over time. Stress done to your brain is reversible. 

Mindfulness training is a useful skill for people of all ages to learn and practice. 

Work we enjoy and that has meaning to us reduces stress. As does yoga, acupuncture, and having a conversation where both parties are listening and engaged.

One of my favorite ways to reduce stress is to put my problem into perspective. It doesn’t take much ‘zooming out’ before I realize the triviality in my worry. 

Reduce screen time. Americans today spend 9 hours and 39 minutes  in front of a screen. Regardless of whether we are engaged with them or not this raises stress. 

Choose your people. Positive begets positive, whiney begets whiney. We are products of our environment and the people we spend time with have a massive impact on our stress.

Break routine. Whether imposed on you or not it’s a disease of modernity that we believe every day needs to be structured the same. Allow yourself some spontaneity and notice the calming effect it has on you. This is partly due to you being adaptable to nearly any circumstance and proving it to yourself by doing something out of the ordinary reinforces your ability. 

Forget your fear of the opinions of others. Nobody cares about the size of your house, your paycheck, or your body; they are too busy thinking about their own. 

 Write in a journal or diary. Writing requires activity similar to thinking and makes you confront issues. It also makes your thoughts real. Once you put a pen to pad the thought or experience becomes more than something that exists only in your head. There is research that shows writing benefits those experiencing all types of stress. From dating worries to terminal illnesses writing helps it all. 

Count your blessings. All of us rely on the sacrifices of those who came before us. Without untold generations of worse conditions we would not have the food, clothing, shelter, or lifestyles we enjoy today. Being grateful for the accommodations we take for granted goes a long way.

Find your modes to reduce stress and stick with them. Now, more than ever, we are in danger of accumulating a new kind of stress which is unique to our times: chronic stress. Research has proven dozens of techniques help mitigate the accumulation. All we have to do is put time into their practice.

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