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The Evolution Of Everyday Stress

Time used to be more elastic; now it’s brittle as an icicle. (Damir Kotoric/Unsplash)
Time used to be more elastic; now it’s brittle as an icicle. (Damir Kotoric/Unsplash)
This article is more than 5 years old.

If I feel like I haven’t had a dose of stress for a while, all I need to do is delay five minutes before I start my morning commute. Perhaps you know those same moments? When the back-up getting on of the highway goes from a mere hundred yards to almost a mile? Relative calm revs to stress speedball. “Will I be on time and not mess up my day or other people’s schedules?” Maybe. But maybe not. My shoulders knot, and I grab the wheel too hard as I wonder.

I started reflecting on contemporary stress when the word appeared on an Italian disc I was playing in the car. In the lesson, a man explains that he is “sotto stress” — under stress, because he works too much, and he’s tired all the time, and so he’s “meso su peso” — gained weight. His sympathetic friend suggests he vacation for a week at a nice isolated convent in Tuscany where he can meditate and do yoga.

Too much of everyday life resembles a missile-launching countdown. And I’m not just talking about the impersonal demands and unrelenting pace of many jobs.

Ah, meditation and yoga. Will slow-breathing, the lotus position and quiet contemplation help our hero? I hope so. Certainly the mere thought comforts me. But, even assuming a person can get the time, money and cellphone silence long enough to make such a journey, we know that the feeling often gets erased — like a fire hose hitting a chalkboard — on reentry.

An etymological dictionary tells me stress only took on its current psychological meaning in the U.S. in the mid-20th century. Now, the pressure for an ever-more-productive workforce at an ever-lower cost is tightening the vise. Add in the large number of parents working more than full time and without the support of accommodating schedules, adequate vacations or comprehensive child-care.

“Can I race from work to the daycare center to be on time for pick-up? And will my exhausted toddler melt down in the middle of the market while I grab food so we can eat before our grade-schooler is too tired to do her homework.”

Salaried Americans now work an average of 47 hours a week, even if they’re only paid for 40. If that’s not stressful enough, we know that Americans up their stress by skipping sleep in order to manage the rest of life in the thin pre- and post-work margins the greedy work week grants.

Too much of everyday life resembles a missile-launching countdown. And I’m not just talking about the impersonal demands and unrelenting pace of many jobs.

Time used to be more elastic; now it’s brittle as an icicle. A few decades ago even an airplane might wait if they saw you running toward the gate. And if you missed it, a real person assisted you onto the next one. Not at home for a phone call? They’ll call back next week. If, in the town where I lived as a child, someone got ill at an odd hour, the doctor appeared at your door. And — I swear — he sometimes sat on the bed and chatted. Neighbors stopped in for tea — unannounced and unplanned, just to share a chuckle. Nowadays, who wants to interrupt someone else’s possible leisure?

Our stress goes down when we feel at least a modicum of control over our own lives, and over our pace.

If we want to add years to our life, lower our stress, and improve our moods, it would help to change our ways. According to Daniel Buettner in his book "The Blue Zones," one route to a longer, satisfying life is to eat dinner each night with friends, laugh and chat, and linger over a glass of wine. So too, a recent news article suggests that spending time together bathing in hot springs helps people in Iceland feel happy in spite of the long dark winters.

Unfortunately, often, leisure for some has been — and still is — based in oppression of others — like lower paid workers, women and members of minority groups. And embracing our current financial inequality will only make matters worse. Fairer wages — so more people can earn a reasonable living and still have some elastic time — would be a step in the right direction.

Our stress goes down when we feel at least a modicum of control over our own lives, and over our pace. For many of us, that means some jogging with the sprinting, and certainly not sprinting all day because someone keeps blowing a bugle exhorting us to chase their fox. Yoga and meditation are both fantastic, and I’m happy they’re popular. But it’s going to take a lot more than week long retreats to turn around the pressures that erode our quality of life.

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Janna Malamud Smith Cognoscenti contributor
Janna Malamud Smith is a psychotherapist and writer.

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