This is my column this week in the New Zealand Herald, which is published in the digital edition every Thursday…
Stress. It’s one of those modern buzzwords. We all know what it means, and what it feels like: the clawing in your gut, the tension headaches, the inability to sit still and relax because there is always something to be done, always a problem to be tended to.
And while we can all identify with feeling stressed at times, the kind of stress that really causes harm is when our “fight – flight” survival mechanisms fire up.
That kind of stress is much more than sweating over a deadline. It’s a series of biological responses that, if experienced chronically, makes us sick, miserable, depressed, anxious and can literally kill us.
Increasingly, it’s looking like one of the leading factors when it comes to understanding the rising rates of depression and anxiety we’re seeing in our country, and other western nations.
Some argue with the reasons increasingly cited as being the same reasons for our rising discontent: poverty, racism, the effects of colonization, social isolation and disconnection, domestic and sexual violence and other forms of prejudice and societal injustice.
It’s still easy to find people that aren’t affected by any of these factors, who suffer depression and anxiety and point at them and say “See! It must be something else!”
And you’d be right, it is something else: It’s the effect of chronic stress.
We can rationally compare the stress levels of a single mother, living below the breadline and trying to feed her children, with the struggle of a parent who hates their high-paying career, has a marriage that’s falling apart, and is struggling to figure out how to pay for their third child’s private education.
You likely have judgements about these two situations. However, all that matters is the level of stress: our biology doesn’t know the difference.
And yes, resources matter and they do increase choices. It’s one of the reasons we consistently see mental health problems at a higher level in people in relative poverty.
But it’s not the poverty per se: it’s the stress that deprivation causes.
It’s also true that for children growing up in situations that cause stress – including parents who are stressed for all of the above reasons – sensitivity to stress is heightened.
It effects brain development, and immune system functioning. And when these individuals grow up, their sensitivity to stress puts them at exponentially higher risk of developing a whole gamut of physical and mental health problems.
What becomes really obvious when you look at things from this perspective is not, how do we help people “make better choices” or provide better services (at the bottom of the cliff), but how do we reduce the stress people are under?
It starts with recognising we’re all in this together. Because put anyone under enough pressure and we will all break, no matter who we are.
Our shared response to stress is universal. And reducing stress is about giving all people options and resources, not taking them away from some.
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