When did stress become the new cool?

Stress is a word that has been bandied around a lot lately. You ask someone how they are and often the answer is “I’m so stressed out” or “I’m so busy”. But are we really that stressed or are we using this as some kind of badge of honour?

There’s a perception that if you’re not busy and stressed, there’s something wrong with you. People think you’re not contributing to society or that you have to be stressed to be doing something meaningful with your life. When did we start using stress as an indicator of success?

There were some interesting findings from the Australian Psychological Society’s Stress and Wellbeing Survey, including:

  • Twenty-five per cent of Australians say they are moderately or severely stressed.
  • Younger Australians (18- to 25-year-olds and 26- to 35-year-olds) report much higher stress levels than older Australians.
  • How we deal with stress: 75% eat, 51% visit social media, 46% have a bath or have a massage, 33% use video games, and 19% gamble.
  • Of those reporting severe stress levels: 61% drink alcohol, 41% gamble, and 31% take ‘recreational’ drugs to manage stress.
  • Social media has constantly been reported as a source of anxiety, yet this study shows 51% of us see social media as a stress-reducer.

What I find really intriguing from these statistics is that we are clearly not managing well and, in fact, we’re contributing to much of our own stress. Gambling, drinking, watching TV, social media — none of these things make us relaxed or content, but we continue to see them as helpful.

Some stress is actually good for us — we need stress as a human being. Can you imagine if a bear were chasing our ancestors and they had no stress response? They needed stress to run for their lives. We might not have bears chasing us nowadays, but we do still need stress to motivate us to complete a task in time, to alert us to danger, or to push us to perform to the best of our abilities.

It’s a problem when it’s so sudden and severe that we can’t cope, or it becomes chronic. For example, the bear chasing you or, more likely, an experience like public speaking, is a temporary stress, but by contrast a difficult job you’ve endured for years is a protracted strain on your life. However, we do underestimate how much power we have over our stressors. We have made it the “new norm” to be chronically stressed rather than relaxed and happy with our lot in life.

There are a few things I think have contributed to this cultural shift:

Technology. If you look at 50 or 60 years ago, life was a lot different: calmer and simpler. We’ve developed all this technology that supposedly makes life easier, yet we’re probably more stressed as a society. People have constant notifications on their smart phones, and work emails are accessible 24/7. There’s just no switching off.

View of Hay Street, Perth, 1950s. Credit: Frank Hurley via NLA Trove

Peer pressure. ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ is alive and well. Mums especially feel a lot of pressure to conform to the expectations of others. For example, if your kids aren’t enrolled in several different activities by a very early age, you’re somehow not a good mother.

What we think is relaxation is not relaxation. Video games, playing on your phone, or binge-watching TV shows — this is not relaxation. These activities stimulate your adrenals and keep your mind active, rather than calm. We need to get back to things like going for walks or sitting in a garden, and just being at peace with ourselves.

We’re not connecting. We’re all contributing to this dissatisfaction in our lives. We want to be seen on social media but we don’t actually connect with people face-to-face as much. We’re human beings and we still need this social contact.

We’ve lost real meaning. It’s a shame that as a society we’ve become so outwardly orientated. Many people’s lives have lost meaning and instead of looking at the simple pleasures, we’re chasing things that don’t really make us happy.

Some cultures and countries are better at stress reduction and happiness than others. And I think it comes down to expectations. In Australia, most of the necessities of life are taken care of and we have a society in which it’s possible for most of us to have a high quality of life. Yet we’re choosing to be busy and stressed out.

Scandinavian countries are constantly listed as the happiest in the world. They work fewer hours and have strong social support. The Danes also embrace a concept called ‘hygge’. It’s a hard to translate but it’s about contentment, and appreciating the little things in life. Maybe we should be taking this concept on board — after all, the Danes are routinely at the very top of the happiness index.

You can help yourself though. We have seen plenty of highly stressed-out people come through our doors and it’s great to see them walk out after a few sessions with a new sense of wellbeing. It’s about bringing the balance back into your life.

– By Tania O’Neill McGowan, O’Neill Kinesiology College Managing Director