Human beings have known stress since cavemen started the first fire then struggled to keep it burning.
So why all the headlines now about college students feeling more anxious than ever
, employees managing intense anxiety
, even Super Bowl fans facing life-threatening stress
from the thrill of the game?
It isn't simply because of economic fears, or less support from families living farther away or information overload
In fact, Americans reported being less stressed in 2010 than they were in 2009
, according to a recent Gallup poll. And not only is our standard of living actually improving
, but Americans say they could happily get by with less
So while I'm concerned about overburdened young adults unprepared to manage their lives, I don't believe that stress is making news because it's at unprecedented levels. I believe stress has become a status symbol.
If more is better in America, then busy is the new black.
We take pride in filling our days with more to do than they can contain. We confuse activity with purpose and believe that the more we get done, the more impressive we are. Stress is validation. A sign that life is bursting at the seams, it says "I am important, desired, needed."
And we pass that approach on to our kids, who report feeling overwhelmed.
My son blames Tiger Moms
. He shares high school classes with students whose parents require them to get A's, rank at the top of the tennis team, excel at debate. He attends religious school with friends who volunteer and work. And he does some of those things. But in his free time he plays video games, watches "How I Met Your Mother" and rediscovers his Inner Slacker.
Leo Tolstoy famously wrote that "Happy families are all alike but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
Here's a corollary: Each high-anxiety family is anxious in its own way.
It would be easy for me to believe that the white middle class angst my family feels is universal, but it is not.
We have food from Fresh Market in our refrigerator, blankets from Target on our beds, and clothes from Aeropostale in our closets. However consequential they may be to us, my family's struggles are superficial.
That is not to say they have always been. We have survived catastrophic illness, financial devastation and other potentially ruinous situations. That's how we know the difference between true trauma and self-inflicted stress.
Your heart may start pounding when your boss calls you in to her office or your palms may start sweating when you have to give a speech in front of strangers. Your body may react in the same fight-or-flight way to any potential panic. Your mind and history can remind you, though, to take the long view and place this moment in perspective.
Different circumstances cause different people stress and we respond differently to the same triggers.
But despite our individuality, we are all citizens of the Neurotic States of America.
Our National Neurosis is to make much ado about everything.
Technology has only intensified this temptation. We tether ourselves to devices
that instantaneously tell us if something urgent has happened or is about to happen. We fear falling even a nano-second behind, and yet in our lemming-like surge to stay ahead, we are alone together
, ignoring the person before our eyes for the one at our fingertips.
This alienation worsens our ability to handle stress, as do many other American habits. Doctors say we can ease anxiety by eating well. Instead, we overeat
, hoping food will offer comfort. We could sleep more
. Instead, we lengthen our days. We could exercise. But most of us do not
What we do that works: pray.
Gallup research found that people of faith -- whatever their religion -- report less stress and better overall well-being. This effect remains constant across variations in age, gender, education, income and race.
About 44 percent of Americans surveyed said they attend a church, synagogue or mosque and that "religion is an important part of daily life
My husband -- who is married to a Jew and part of an extended tribal family -- notes the irony that while we may complain most aggravatingly about each ailment or potential problem, Gallup finds "Jews have the highest well-being of any of the faith groups examined in this analysis."
The polling company also found that generosity helps ameliorate stress
Interviews with people in 130 countries show that they "get an emotional boost from doing kind things for other people," including helping a stranger, donating money or volunteering time.
People with higher personal well-being may be more likely to act philanthropically. However, the reverse holds. Acting philanthropically improves our well-being, reducing stress and making us more optimistic about the future.
Stress is a form of pessimism, a physical response to the belief that This will not end well for me.
But stress can help us -- just ask competitive athletes, journalists, or anyone addicted to the adrenaline rush of the ticking clock.
Stress focuses our attention and warns us to be aware of what we're doing and why.
Supported by purpose, stress animates the pursuit of happiness, creating a more perfect union between who we are and who we hope to be. And that is the American Dream.