One nation under stress?

Stress has been commodified, but stressism offers no solutions to the structural problems of modern life.

Dana Becker
18 August 2019, 8.21pm
Pixabay/Pete Linforth. Pixabay license.

I brought my 81-year-old husband home from the hospital on Thursday. He had suffered a mild heart attack in March. This time he was in the hospital for three days and no one could figure out what was wrong. At home the next morning, he had symptoms identical to those he had had the day we had left for the Emergency Room. I, on the other hand, felt worse; my throat was scratchy and that night I developed a fever. Since we moved from Philadelphia to Ann Arbor following my 96-year-old mother’s stroke last year, my husband has been depending on me more and I have assumed the role of my mother’s sole decision-maker and advocate. As I coughed and tossed at night I tried not to think about the great unravelling that might occur if I became really sick, or even died.

Was I ‘stressed out’ in the vernacular of our time? I suppose the answer is yes. It is customary these days to describe reactions to difficult situations this way. We now rely on stress to explain the effects of everything from war to too much mail in our inbox. From 1970 to 1980, there were over 2,000 academic publications with stress in the title; from 2000 to 2010 there were over 21,000. As the historian Charles Rosenberg has pointed out, since the advent of industrialism Americans have had various ways of explaining the relationship between the fast pace of life and disease, a story of progress and pathology. Stress is now at the center of those explanations. Biomedical research focuses on the impact of stress on the immune system even though there is as yet no solid evidence of a cause-and-effect relationship between the two.

When the eighteenth-century philosopher and statesman Alexis de Tocqueville travelled to America he praised American individualism, but he also expressed the fear that eventually Americans might come to believe that “their whole destiny is in their own hands.” Many of us seem to have swallowed that belief along with our kale smoothies. In 1980, the political economist Robert Crawford coined the term “healthism” to describe how, for the middle classes, maintaining their health was fast becoming a universal responsibility and an overarching moral value.

In the decades since, stress has been considered a chief adversary in the fight to stay healthy, and everything from cancer to too much texting is deemed stressful. This has been a boon for advertisers and self-help gurus. ‘Relax, buy a massage chair, eat better, focus on your breath and buy a pastel yoga mat.’ The commodification of stress comfortably molds itself to capitalism, and the emphasis on individual solutions to social and political problems fits conveniently with an historical attachment to American individualism and its twentieth-century shape-shifting cousin, self-actualization.

In my book, One Nation Under Stress: The Trouble with Stress as an Idea, I have defined stressism as the “belief that the tensions of contemporary life are primarily individual lifestyle problems to be solved through managing stress, as opposed to the belief that these tensions are linked to social forces and need to be resolved primarily through social and political means.” By focusing on the stress we ‘feel,’ we train our attention on how to ‘de-stress’ at the expense of examining and trying to transform the underlying conditions that cause us to experience stress in the first place.

In this way stress serves a malign social purpose. Once I say that I’m ‘stressed’, I’m advised to meditate or take a walk or light aromatic candles or steep in a bubble bath. Any of these, of course, could certainly make me feel better in the short run, and I’m not suggesting we stop trying to take care of ourselves if we have the time and means to do so, but these are superficial remedies to deep-rooted structural problems.

When psychologists consistently describe poverty as stressful, they encourage interventions at the level of the individual. As Andrew Solomon proposed in the New York Times magazine some years back, since poverty is depressing and many poor people are depressed, why not just treat poor people for depression? In our therapeutic culture, at a time when many problems of living are defined as mental illnesses, it is not surprising that problems like poverty is are medicalized in this way. Poverty can certainly be depressing, but antidepressants are no remedy for poverty.

Another example of how our current focus on stress obscures the social conditions that produce it is revealed when we consider how discussions of working mothers’ stress inevitably raise the need for the ever-elusive ‘work/family balance.’ Such balance is deemed essential if women are to avoid screaming at their children or denying sex to their partners. ‘Take care of yourself and deal with your stress so you can continue to care for others’ is the message that began to emerge in the 1980s when middle-class white women joined the workforce in ever larger numbers.

This was a period when the tropes of ‘Superwoman ‘and ‘Supermom’ were the order of the day. Talk of women and stress boiled over in 1990s when women’s magazines were full of articles warning that attempts to ‘juggle’ or ‘balance’ the demands of home and work were apt to wreck women’s physical and/or mental health unless they ‘managed their stress.’

Apart from an occasional reference to the need for ‘family-friendly’ workplace policies, such discussions failed to describe the social forces that bore down on women who tried to ‘have it all’, forces that included - and still include - the gendered nature of caregiving and the phallocentric nature of the workplace. And of course, although poor women have been working outside the home for centuries, their ‘stress’ has been systematically neglected as a subject of public interest.

Joan Williams, the director of the Center for Worklife Law, has pointed out how today’s white-collar workplace is still tailored for the ‘ideal’ (male) worker who has a wife handling domestic life and its backstage dramas, and historian Michael Kimmel has suggested that, for men, putting in maximum hours at the office is the contemporary analog of felling trees and killing bears in pioneer days. Overwork is the new macho activity, and if women are ‘stressed out’ in trying to manage expanding workplace expectations on top of the twenty-first century demands of intensive parenting, they had better find quick ways of relieving it so as not to disturb the status quo.

A central problem with these discussions of work/life balance is that they place ‘work’ and ‘life’ on opposing sides of the scale, and women in their destined position at the fulcrum. The ‘stress’ experienced in working families of all socioeconomic groups would be greatly alleviated if care-giving were valued in moral, political and economic terms. This kind of valuation would direct policy so that responsibility for care of the young, the elderly and the disabled, now assumed primarily by women, would be properly supported.

The restructuring of the workplace would enable a level of ‘work/life balance’ for families that can now only be dreamt of, at least in the United States. Paid family leave would no longer be a figment of the popular imagination. Care workers would earn higher wages, making it possible to hope that there might be enough paid caregivers to serve the growing number of elderly people who will need them.

The idea of stress offers one way of talking about our vulnerability, but it doesn’t help us do much more than moan about middle-class pressures and grasp at temporary solutions. It offers ballast to the status quo and keeps us as a society from undertaking the potentially more destabilizing work of structural social change that is needed in order to reduce the human distress that is created by adverse social conditions.

What if, as a society we adopted the idea of universal vulnerability, which the legal scholar Martha Albertson Fineman defines as “an enduring aspect of the human condition that must be at the heart of social and state responsibility?” Embracing this principle would necessarily limit our efforts to re-engineer ourselves at the expense of truly altering the fabric of society.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData