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Why is everyone so damn stressed in 2018?

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Harvey Day
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We’ve spoken to a psychologist, a philosopher and a poet about why we’re all so stressed out - and what we can do about it

Stress is, quite literally, killing us. Symptoms can lead to anxiety, headaches, trouble sleeping and even cardiovascular disease, and for us Brits, stress is becoming a bigger and bigger problem. 

According to a new survey from the Mental Health Foundation, three-quarters of UK adults have felt so stressed at some point over the last year they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope.

What’s more, a third of people said they’d experienced suicidal feelings as a result of stress and 16% said they’d self-harmed because of it.

So, for an alternative look at this stress epidemic wracking our collective consciousness, ShortList has spoken to three accomplished people from very different backgrounds - and they’ve all got some tips on how we can deal with stress better… 

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The Philosopher

Mark Jago is a philosophy professor at the University of Nottingham. He writes about logic, language, metaphysics and the philosophy of the mind.

Why is everyone so stressed out?

“Two huge issues are precarity – including low pay, under-employment, short-term contracts, and housing – and over-work.

“Every professional I know over-works, well over the legal limit of 48 hours. And it isn’t just the quantity of work that’s to blame: much of it is meaningless bullshit or being embedded within a deeply harmful competitive atmosphere.”

What about other things like the economy and political chaos?

“The deep causes of stress are social and political, not individual. Your employment and housing rights, or lack of them, are political matters.

“Financial trouble causes stress, but mostly because we don’t have sufficiently caring social security arrangements. Countries with better social security are less stressed. Inequality within a society, rather than its overall level of wealth, is a deep cause of stress and anxiety.”

Are men particularly bad at talking about stress?

“Everyone has trouble talking about stress, because it’s perceived as a sign of not being able to cope, when in fact, it’s a natural reaction to having to deal with precarity, long hours, and too much meaningless nonsense at work.”

How can we deal with stress better?

“Yoga, cycling and sleeping under canvas are all great. But just as the causes of stress aren’t individualistic, nor are the real solutions.

“As a society, we need to devote more time for one another, for family and friends, for thinking, learning, playing, dancing, and being idle.

“We can help each other: don’t boast about how long and hard you work; don’t say, ‘X is great, he works so hard, he gets so much done’. How often do you hear someone being praised for how good they are at relaxing, taking time off to spend with family, or just being idle? Yet these people are exemplars of the good life.

“Policy makers should think big. A 3-day weekend would be a great start. There’d be less work, but it’d be higher quality. A basic income would go a long way to addressing problems of precarity. Ultimately, in a society in which the worst off are treated with full respect and dignity, there would be less anxiety.”

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The Poet

Christopher Soto is an award-winning poet based in Brooklyn, New York. He is the editor of Nepantla: An Anthology Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color (2018).

Why is everyone so stressed right now?

“It’s various reasons. Family, school, money, health. It depends on the person.”

How important are politics and the economy?

“I think political issues inform our stress because it’s politics that decide the kind of lives that we are able to live.

“How is it possible to ignore politics and not be stressed by them when it is politics that decide whether or not your family will be deported? It is only logical that in times of political instability and uncertainty we feel more stressed.”

Are men worse at talking about stress and their emotions?

“Yes, but I think this is also dependent on the kind of men. For example, I think queer and trans men likely have an easier time discussing emotions because, by default, we have had to unlearn white patriarchal socializations that might have told us we are weak for expressing emotions.”

What are some good ways to de-stress?

“Run, eat well and take time to yourself away from the television or email or people.

“When you feel stressed then name it and try to focus on your breathing. And learn to say ‘no’ when you don’t want to do something.”

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The Psychologist

Rob Robson is a performance psychologist based in Leamington Spa.

Why are we so stressed?

“I think it’s fair to say that in today’s society we have more going on. At work, we’re doing more with less while social media provides more information to handle and more social interactions – but often with lower quality.”

“Any negative experience can be stressful and uncertainty tends to exacerbate our feelings of stress.

“We think: ‘Is this going to continue? For how long? Can I cope?’ This is when stress becomes unpleasant and starts to take conscious or unconscious effort to manage.”

How important are political and economic issues?

“It makes sense that an uncertain political or economic climate will have an impact on our stress levels. If you’re worried about your job existing in the future, you’ll worry more that you had a bad meeting with your boss.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty about things like Brexit. Whether you are for or against it, it’s unclear what will happen after next March and how people will be affected.

“It’s no surprise that governments prefer to be able to create a ‘feel good factor’. If we feel good collectively about what’s going on in society and where we’re heading, we’re individually more likely to cope with stress.”

Are men worse at talking about stress and their emotions?

“I think so but I don’t think it’s unique to men. In my work I’ve found that people often don’t even have the words to describe their emotions. I learned to bring in cue cards and let people point to the words that they could relate to, and then we could have a conversation.

“As children, my generation – I’m 45 – were not encouraged to express ourselves emotionally. This emotional illiteracy has been passed through the generations. I still don’t think many people feel confident either talking about or listening to someone talking about emotions.

“But I do think that’s slowly changing as we become more aware of mental health and well-being.”

How can we deal with stress better?

“Talk to someone. We often magnify things in our own minds, and other people can provide perspective.

“Or find a de-stressing activity. Exercise is a great outlet, but it’s not the only thing that can help. Reading, art, cooking – any hobby that engages your brain and brings you back into the moment can work. Passive activities like watching TV don’t have the same effect.

“By all means have a drink to help you relax, but recognise that after that one or two you’ll start draining your battery rather than recharging it, and reducing your ability to cope (and of course, it’s addictive).”

– Suicide is the single biggest killer of UK men under 45. CALM and the Samaritans are among the resources available to anyone affected by the issues mentioned in this article.

(Illustration: Jutta Kuss)