Is “stress” as an idea hurting us?

Too many approaches to “stress management” inadvertently blame people for their social conditions.

Many well-intentioned professionals including educators, social workers, psychologists and others have learned to address challenges in people’s lives by focusing almost entirely on individual behaviors and choices. For example, people struggling with obesity, depression, substance abuse and “stressful” circumstances are often encouraged to make better choices – learn to “de-stress,” control their anger or choose healthier food.

Dana Becker, Ph.D. challenges this individualized “self-help” culture and encourages a broader and deeper examination of complex issues that impact people’s health and wellbeing. In her book titled “One Nation under Stress: The trouble with stress as an idea,” Becker explores the history of the creation of “stress” as an idea – and examines who benefits and who is disadvantaged by the notion of “stress.” Becker provides numerous examples and compelling information to support the assertion that too much emphasis on people’s individual stressors shifts the focus away from root causes and sustainable solutions to complex problems.

Citing examples within scholarly research and popular self-help culture, Becker illuminates ways that people – particularly women, people of color and those living in poverty are too often inadvertently blamed for their struggles and challenges. For example, research shows that twice as many women are diagnosed with depression than men. A steady stream of media reports, articles and books encourage women to learn to “relax,” ”lighten up,” “make to do lists,” “let go of the need to do everything,” “learn better work-life balance” – and “take a bubble bath” in order to calm down and keep things in perspective. While this advice may seem innocuous enough, Becker asserts that this focus on women’s responsibility for changing their own behaviors obscures the larger social and economic conditions that perpetuate injustice, oppression and underlying systems impacting diverse women’s health and wellbeing.

Taking a larger view of women’s depression and anxiety includes getting underneath what’s really happening for too many women. Examples include feeling like they don’t have control over their circumstances in workplaces and families, not being affirmed or supported in their close relationships, pay inequity, a constant barrage of media messages that value women solely for their appearance and an overall lack of support for the work of home and family. Research on women’s lives shows that while the majority of women are working outside of the home, they continue to do the bulk of the housework and have primary responsibility for childcare. Examples like these beg the question, “Is this depression or a response to oppression” and can lead to a deeper analysis to complex issues in the lives of many women.

Becker urges readers to stop pathologizing people and move away from advice like take a pill (or a scented bubble bath) to deal with stress, anxiety and depression. Rather than viewing individuals as “ill,” she recommends that we acknowledge and work together on tackling the ills of society such as low wages, inadequate childcare, unsafe communities, discrimination and inflexible workplaces.

Becker’s work provides an important lens through which to examine complex issues. While cultivating resiliency and learning to navigate difficult situations in our lives is essential to social and emotional health and wellbeing, Michigan State University Extension urges people to address complex issues (such as bullying, for example) at multiple levels – rather than blaming and scapegoating individuals or groups of people. Balancing personal accountability with a need for larger institutional and cultural changes has great potential for improving the lives of children, youth, adults, families and communities.

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