Tuesday 17 September 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'It is modern life and not work that causes stress'

With more people than ever suffering from stress, it's time to admit the real problem is not at work, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

The internet appears to amplify the stresses of modern living, sometimes to the point where it can overwhelm individuals. Stock photo
The internet appears to amplify the stresses of modern living, sometimes to the point where it can overwhelm individuals. Stock photo

Eilis O'Hanlon

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. According 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.

Sunday Independent

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