EILIS O’HAN­LON

The stress of modern life

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - City Final -

THE worst thing about the in­ter­net is the del­uge of in­spi­ra­tional quotes on so­cial me­dia, and this one, at­trib­uted to Amer­i­can singer-song­writer Kelly Clark­son, may be the worst ever ex­am­ple: “God will never give you any­thing you can’t han­dle, so don’t stress.”

The stu­pid­ity in those dozen lit­tle words is al­most be­yond com­pre­hen­sion. Does she never watch the news? God sends plenty of things peo­ple’s way that they can’t han­dle. Lit­tle Miss Pos­i­tiv­ity should check her priv­i­lege.

What mat­ters about stress is that it doesn’t mat­ter if, ob­jec­tively speak­ing, some au­thor­ity could make the case that you’re not re­ally suf­fer­ing from it, be­cause the ef­fects are ex­actly the same if you just think that you are; and that goes for an alarm­ingly large num­ber of peo­ple. Ac- cord­ing to the Eco­nomic and So­cial Re­search In­sti­tute, the num­ber of peo­ple in Ire­land suf­fer­ing from work-re­lated stress ac­tu­ally dou­bled be­tween 2010 and 2015, from 8pc to 17pc — and that’s only those who say they’re stressed “al­ways” or “most of the time”.

Plenty more suf­fer from the same feel­ings in­ter­mit­tently, or choose to deny and bot­tle them up rather than ad­mit­ting to what is still mis­char­ac­terised as weak­ness. Their num­bers are deemed to be any­where be­tween 21pc and 38pc. Long work­ing hours. Bul­ly­ing. It all takes its toll.

Ire­land’s in­crease may be the high­est recorded among 10 West­ern Eu­ro­pean na­tions in­cluded in the sur­vey, but one con­so­la­tion is that work place stress lev­els in this coun­try are still below the in­ter­na­tional av­er­age. It’s also worth be­ing alert to the dan­gers of over-di­ag­no­sis. As for the prob­lem of com­pet­i­tive stress, we all know some­one who goes on at such in­ter­minable length about how stressed they are that the op­por­tu­nity rarely arises to tell them in great de­tail how stressed we are. How in­fu­ri­at­ing is that?

Think­ing about stress ex­clu­sively in terms of work is prob­a­bly a mis­take, though. Stress­ful jobs do make peo­ple sick, de­pressed; me­dia cov­er­age of the ESRI re­port con­cen­trated on what to do in work to com­bat the dan­gers.

But stress at work is a symp­tom, not a cause. In­creas­ingly it’s hard to es­cape the con­clu­sion that it’s modern life it­self which is the root of the prob­lem. Not only that, but that the way we now live might, by its very na­ture, be dys­func­tional and trau­matic to one’s sense of well be­ing.

That’s par­tic­u­larly ev­i­dent in young peo­ple. New re­search from the UK re­cently found ter­ri­fy­ing lev­els of poor men­tal health in chil­dren and young peo­ple. A fifth of girls and one in 10 boys be­tween the ages of 17 and 19 re­ported self-harm­ing or at­tempt­ing sui­cide. One in 20 chil­dren be­tween the ages of two and four was even deemed to be suf­fer­ing from a men­tal health dis­or­der. This rises to one in eight above the age of 11.

Cer­tain fac­tors were iden­ti­fied — the de­mands to do well at school or col­lege; so­cial me­dia pres­sure to end­lessly com­pare one’s body to oth­ers; the toxic ef­fects of pre­ma­ture sex­u­al­i­sa­tion, which is still be­ing foisted on young peo­ple as a healthy ex­pres­sion of em­pow­er­ment when it’s any­thing but, even if say­ing so risks ac­cu­sa­tions of prud­ery.

Some of the fig­ures un­doubt­edly speak to a ten­dency to pathol­o­gise what are nor­mal child­hood un­cer­tain­ties; and per­haps we have lost some valu­able sto­icism; but it’s hard to deny that some­thing has gone hor­ri­bly wrong. The ex­pe­ri­ence of young peo­ple in Ire­land is un­likely to be much dif­fer­ent. Nor is it only the young who are suf­fer­ing from a bat­tery of psy­cho­log­i­cal provo­ca­tions. Stress is merely one part of a big­ger, darker pic­ture.

We seem in­creas­ingly to be liv­ing in a world that we’ve made too hard on our­selves. We bom­bard our brains with stim­uli from the mo­ment of wak­ing un­til the last few sec­onds be­fore sleep. That What­sApp mes­sage must be an­swered. That next episode of the Net­flix show must be watched. Peo­ple are even re­ported to be hav­ing sex sig­nif­i­cantly less of­ten than in decades past, and that’s con­sis­tent across all ages, so­cial classes, races, and re­gions.

The lure of so­cial me­dia has again been blamed, as neu­rot­i­cally check­ing smart­phones hun­dreds of times each day makes us prison­ers of mere de­vices, while the re­lated ex­pan­sion of work out of the of­fice and into the home also has a knock-on ef­fect. Peo­ple in nine-to-five jobs never used to still be work­ing at 10 o’clock in the evening. Now that’s com­mon. Peo­ple are too in­se­cure about their jobs to risk not be­ing al­ways on call, bring­ing an in­evitable down­turn in men­tal health.

Gen­der dys­mor­phia, mean­while, is gal­lop­ing through vul­ner­a­ble groups of young peo­ple as they’re se­duced to ques­tion their very iden­ti­ties as boys and girls in ways which are ter­ri­fy­ingly self-pun­ish­ing. All of these mes­sages come fil­tered through a wrap­around me­dia which bom­bards them day on day with more in­for­ma­tion abou t the world than they can ever hope to process.

That’s surely why many young peo­ple were re­ported to be ex­pe­ri­enc­ing equiv­a­lent lev­els of post-trau­matic stress fol­low­ing the elec­tion of Pres­i­dent Trump as those who’d wit­nessed a school shoot­ing. One can mock them as snowflakes, but clearly they are strug­gling to cope with what ought to be small prob­lems. They’re small, yes, but they’re small prob­lems am­pli­fied.

What do all these phe­nom­ena have in com­mon? Looked at more closely, the in­ter­net does start to look like a com­mon thread. The cur­rent pop­u­la­tion of this planet has been the sub­ject of the most in­tense psy­cho­log­i­cal mass ex­per­i­ment in hu­man con­scious­ness. What hap­pens when you plug bil­lions of peo­ple into an on­line world whose ef­fects on men­tal health are en­tirely un­known? We’re find­ing out. What the in­ter­net does is dis­con­nect the user from the world around while ex­pos­ing them to ob­ses­sive scru­tiny. Na­ture be­comes weird, un­know­able. Ev­ery­thing we think is worth know­ing is ac­cessed in vir­tual, dig­i­tal form. Ev­ery hu­man in­ter­ac­tion is done at a re­move.

Even get­ting sim­ple tasks done be­comes a night­mare be­cause the tech­nol­ogy which is meant to make things sim­pler ac­tu­ally makes them more com­pli­cated and frus­trat­ing. Deal­ing with face­less min­ions in gi­ant cor­po­ra­tions leads to dis­con­nec­tion. Deal­ing with us also stresses out them.

“There is some­thing dys­func­tional in the way we live our lives to­day,” ob­served Hans-Horst Konkolewsky, sec­re­tary-gen­eral of the In­ter­na­tional So­cial Se­cu­rity Or­gan­i­sa­tion, in an in­ter­view in 2015. “The modern hu­man be­ing seems to have prob­lems with this life­style, with the traf­fic, the ur­ban­i­sa­tion.”

Be­cause cram­ming more and more peo­ple to­gether into the same cities, with the known ac­cu­mu­la­tor of en­vi­ron­men­tal stres­sors that in­volves, and merely hop­ing they don’t crack un­der the strain, is an ex­per­i­ment too. Stud­ies across the world and across vastly dif­fer­ing cul­tures in­di­cate that rates of psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­or­ders are uni­formly higher in the ur­ban than the ru­ral pop­u­la­tion. What if we were ac­tu­ally built for small-scale liv­ing, and the world we’ve made is forc­ing our minds into in­ner con­flict?

Ac­cel­er­at­ing glob­al­i­sa­tion also sep­a­rates peo­ple from what used to ground them in a shared so­ci­ety, leav­ing them adrift. That may help ex­plain a lot of po­lit­i­cal tur­moil too.

This is not nos­tal­gia for a sim­pler, less in­va­sive and Byzan­tine world. Well, maybe a lit­tle. It’s about ac­knowl­edg­ing that Ein­stein was right. Mad­ness is do­ing the same thing over and over again and ex­pect­ing a dif­fer­ent re­sult.

‘Tech­nol­ogy doesn’t make life sim­pler, only more frus­trat­ing’

RUN­NING TO A STAND­STILL: The in­ter­net ap­pears to am­plify the stresses of modern liv­ing, some­times to the point where it can over­whelm in­di­vid­u­als

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