We need to change the narrative of stress

In Society by Camilla

Trying to narrow down a large subject to one single argument as one should do when writing a master thesis leads to many stream of thoughts. They’re not all relevant to the task ahead, but are not less interesting. One thing in particular is the whole discourse surrounding the phenomena of stress.

Stress has as, not only a physical and psychological condition, but also as a part of our language undergone an extreme hyperinflation – but at the same time, one could argue, the meaning of the word has been depleted; everything can at anytime be defined as stressful. And it is my conviction that in order to achieve a society where fewer people are diagnosed with stress, this is a story we need to change: We simply need to talk differently about stress, change the narrative in which stress is inscribed.

But first, let’s rewind a bit. In order to change a narrative into something new and more constructive, we have to look at the beginning. (Disclaimer: I’m no doctor, so this might be a very simplified view on stress, and please, do correct me if you think I’m wrong!)

The first to talk about stress was Walter Cannon (1871-1945), an American doctor. You may not have heard about him before, but he is the man responsible for the expression fight or flight, which to its essence has to do with stress. Experiencing stress was, to him, a reaction of the Stone Age – simply put, a way of surviving. Stress would either express itself as emotional stress or in fight/flight. Stress therefore became one of the corners of social Darwinism, as whoever delt better with stress had better chances of surviving.

This perspective can be seen as problematic in many ways, but it also shows us one way to change our storytelling of stress: Stress was a positive, essential reaction without which we would not survive. Stress is, when transient, a harmless fluctuation that makes us capable of overcoming things we would not else be able to handle.

When feeling stress our body will release one of two hormones: Adrenalin or cortisol. This hormonal reaction is what makes a mother capable of lifting a car, if her child is trapped under it. Common for the two is that they’re part of our protectional system and they will, each in their own way, help us in the given situation.

However, this release of hormones – the real physical response to stress – is not what we, necessarily, experience, when we refer to something that stressed us out. Luckily, it seems we’re in the middle of a change. A couple of years ago it, suddenly, seemed to be a trend to work a lot, to be super busy and to experience a general high level of stress. In 2016 there are indicators that we’re heading in another direction. Being a workaholic is no longer cool.

So maybe the change I’m asking for has already started. But I still would like to encourage a more conscious use of language. The next time you find yourself saying that something stressed you, try to consider what feeling you were actually experiencing. Was the task simply to hard? Did the situation annoy you? etc. Changing a narrative has been seen to make an actual change in the world.

Language is a crucial part of building a society, so we need to use it carefully. And sometimes we need to change the story we tell about ourselves and the world around us. The story of stress, as we see it these days is not constructive, but can be seen as only providing more stress. So let’s change the narrative and start talking about stress differently – and hopefully through this maneuver: Talk less about stress because we experience it more rarely.

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