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The Problem with How We See Stress

The Problem with How We See StressThe term and concept of “stress” has become ingrained in our vernacular. There are scores of articles on how to manage stress in everything from our homes to our health to our workplace and for everyone from moms to dads to the kids. (I’ve written many myself.)

However, according to Dana Becker, Ph.D, author of the thought-provoking book One Nation Under Stress: The Trouble with Stress As An Idea, by focusing on how each person can manage stress, we’re obscuring the bigger picture and issues: the social, political and economic problems that spark and perpetuate our stress in the first place.

Today’s articles and rhetoric on stress imply that if we fix ourselves, we’ll fix everything. Instead of stress-reducing tips empowering us, according to Becker, “we’re being sold a bill of goods.” We’re buying into an illusion that “blames the victim.”

“The advice is targeted to help us achieve a sense of control in situations that aren’t really controllable except through some kind of economic, political or social level.” In other words, “having control over how well we eat isn’t the same as changing workplace policies.”

Instead of talking about poor workplace policies, spotty daycare and other hurdles for single parents or dual-career households, we’re talking about stress, said Becker, a psychotherapist and professor of social work at Bryn Mawr College. Instead of fixing the problem of a single parent with three kids having to work ‘til 8:30 p.m. every night, we’re talking about taking a bubble bath, she said.

Becker doesn’t dismiss the importance of self-care or healthy habits. She views this as a “both and.” “Nobody is saying that it’s a bad thing to take care of ourselves. [But] a lot of these problems won’t be solved unless we engage in a national discussion.”

History of Stress

So how did the concept of stress come to be? The term “stress” was used as early as 1914 by Harvard physiologist Walter Cannon. But his concept was different than ours today. As Becker notes in One Nation Under Stress, “Cannon described stress in terms of heat, hunger, oxygen deprivation and other phenomena that can cause predictable physiological responses.”

He concluded that in response to fear and fury, our bodies released adrenalin and our heartbeat and blood sugar increased. But our bodies would always return to “homeostasis,” or keep “on an even course.”  Remnants of this theory do live on today. According to Becker in her book:

“…it is generally agreed that, after Cannon, all stress theories were based at least in part on his ideas about homeostasis. Cannon’s work lives on in the popular idea that there is an ongoing battle between our out-of-date physiology and the demands of modern life. We make biological ‘adjustments’ that are no longer functional: we react to an angry boss the way our Stone Age counterparts reacted to a saber-tooth tiger, but we can’t run away…”

It was Czech-born endocrinologist Hans Selye who popularized the concept of stress. At first, Selye used the term “stress” much like Cannon did. But by 1950, Becker writes, “he was describing stress as a ‘response to a condition evoked by stressors.’” In his book The Stress of Life, which Selye penned for the public, he refers to stress as “the rate of wear and tear caused by life.” He also made the connection between stress and disease.

Selye was a master marketer of stress. According to Becker in her book, “A tireless promoter of the stress concept, Selye sold and resold it over the years in popular and professional venues – in his best-selling books The Story of the Adaptation Syndrome and The Stress of Life, in talks to doctors’ groups in Canada and the United States, and at meetings of the American Psychological Association.

But Selye was so good that while the public accepted stress as a prominent concept, his specific theories got lost. In fact, “…the ‘truth’ of the stress concept and the American embrace of it did not come about through scientific agreement or through medical cures for ‘stress-related’ diseases. It was stress’s popularity that made it ‘true,’” Becker writes.

Collective Movements

While it’s the American way to believe we can fix anything on our own, some problems require collective action, Becker said. Take discrimination, for instance. The only reason the brave behavior of Rosa Parks “worked is because there was a movement already afoot,” Becker said.  If a movement didn’t exist, her individual protest would’ve likely been an isolated one.

Today, there are many collective movements that aim to effect change. Becker mentioned a website called MomsRising, a place where moms can connect and pressure their representatives to make changes at the policy level.

Ultimately, Becker believes we’re asking the wrong questions about “stress.” Rather than solely asking how we can alleviate or reduce our own stress, we should be asking how our society – at the policy level – can address the bigger picture. The problems at the root of our stress are rarely individual issues; they’re social ones.

The Problem with How We See Stress

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Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor and regular contributor at Psych Central. Her Master's degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University. In addition to writing about mental disorders, she blogs regularly about body and self-image issues on her Psych Central blog, Weightless.

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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2018). The Problem with How We See Stress. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 16 Mar 2013)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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