Dr. FD Boley

(Online Therapist in Camdenton, MO)

Ph.D, M.A., LPC, Life Coach, Author
CST (4:26 AM)

Why Are People So Stressed Out?

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There has never been more help or better help for people suffering from stress. Today, we know how to help people really effectively to deal with stress.

Paradoxically, never has there been more stress about, and there have never been more stressed people. At any college counseling center, for example, it is a commonplace that anxiety and stress are soaring among students.

Which seems strange to those of use born before 1990. This is the most prosperous society in the history of the world, and even in our lifetimes, we remember being much harder up. Clothes used to be a lot more expensive; soft drinks were a minor luxury.

Further back, my grandfather longed to go to college, and he had the brains to succeed, but there was no financial aid and he had to work for a living, so he didn't go. Today, almost anyone can go to college. Admissions counselors at community colleges will tell you that many people "make money" off their Pell grants--they are actually better off month-to-month going to school than not.

Unemployment is at historic lows; government benefits help those who lose a job or suffer some other financial reverse. There are fewer wars and war deaths in the world than ever. It is also much less acceptable now than when I was young for people to drive drunk, or to physically punish their children; very few kids now have to jump from bed in the dark to work hard for a couple hours before going to school.

I realize that I am slipping into "we had to walk five miles to school and back, up-hill both ways" territory! But I am not accusing kids of being ungrateful, I am marveling that seemingly everyone, but especially young people, are so stressed out...when times are so relatively good.

I think there are probably several reasons for our paradoxical stress and anxiety. But one has been mentioned which I think is particularly worth noting: the changing nature of mass media. This is stressful in at least three ways, which many people do not realize.

First, headlines and links have become more and more outrageous in order to get attention in a crowded market, which gives the impression that Everything Is In Crisis! I have noticed that headline writers often do not specify where an event took place, leading to the impression that Local Man Has Hand Chopped Off (when really it was in Saudi Arabia).

It has been commented that people care less about catastrophes the farther away they are, and this fact is reported with much clicking of the tongue. But the distance factor is actually protective. I cannot fall on my knees and go to pieces for everyone's lost child or I would never get anything done. And sure enough, now that I have the impression that "Local Man Castrated" or am tempted by "Horrifying Pictures of Spider in Local Woman's Ear!" then I am indeed getting less done, and the world feels like a much more horrible and dangerous place.

In the same way, according to the news, The Other Side is always motivated by the most outrageously evil impulses, and people are always supposedly destroying each other "with one tweet!" Politics, more then ever before, has become a gladiatorial contest in which onlookers are not trying to understand matters of state but are instead baying for blood, because baying for blood leads to more clicks.

Second, media is constantly on and playing. In the 1970s, you watched the news at 6pm, and most of the rest of the time, you saw the real world, talked to real people, and heard real noises. Now there is a lot more content and it is presented to us dozens of times a day. I mean by this not only hard news but every other kind of content, too. I love music on the radio, and I love talk radio and podcasts; but consider that 100 years ago, music was only heard of an evening--when you made it yourself! Debates, lectures, and sermons were highly valued, but they were usually heard but once a week, and speakers sustained a thought or argument over 45 minutes or an hour. Children were expected to sit quietly and listen that whole time, rather than watching a steady stream of hyper-sarcastic, jump-cut videos.

Third, the reinforcement schedule has become much, much shorter. When I was a kid with a paper route, I used to sit and read the daily newspaper for 45 minutes. Reading an interesting story became reinforcing to me, and my newspaper reading would therefore be reinforced maybe 10 or 12 times of an afternoon (for good or for ill). Now, the same number of rewards is available in 120 seconds. Video games are even much worse because they over-stimulate, and are frequented more often by, people with developing brains. Today, if a sermon goes past 20 minutes, people are in revolt, and only a few will ever go to hear a lecture: we have trained ourselves to have short attention spans.

So, while there are many effective strategies for dealing with stress, the classic counseling strategy is likely to be the most effective: prevention. You must make the decision to have your brain eat its vegetables: put in front of your mind things that are of eternal value, things that are good, true, and beautiful. Limit the junk food of loud, exciting, and trashy modern media. And I am willing to bet that your stress will diminish as a problem.