There is no escaping escalating levels of stress these days. Two weeks ago I sat in a room of parents listening to college counselors at our school tell us what is ahead. My son is a junior and we have steadfastly avoided jumping into the college bound fray, but last Thursday night I felt like I got sucker punched. I came away from the event thinking, “This is a system created by and for the adults.”
I find myself struggling to accept that it will be necessary to research and visit dozens of schools, for my son to take classes to prepare for an SAT, for my son to plan to take the SAT multiple times, and then stare down the cost and process of applying to 14-20 different institutions in a particularly scaled pattern. I wonder if all of this is truly just serving the students. As kindly as possible we were told to be prepared for what amounts to a second job. The stress in the room was palpable.
Even for students who manage to pass the high stakes course of college acceptance, the costs are enormous. Psychological services at college campuses are overwhelmed. This particular report suggests that mental health services are overwhelmed because more kids are getting to college with a predisposition towards mental health challenges. I’m not so sure it isn’t the other way around. Maybe we are creating mental illness as our current academic environment–and society at large–continues to raise the bar. It seems that expectations escalate in tandem with a multitude of barriers overwhelming all but the highest functioning students.
A CONTINUUM OF STRESS FROM SCHOOL TO THE WORKPLACE
There is plenty of evidence that overwhelming pressure continues in the workplace. This past Monday (ironically the same day the LA Times ran a story about stress and a child’s brain development), an article in the business section unwittingly framed the problem. The writer gushed at the daring and prowess of one young executive as he was quoted, “I’m a manic manic. I’ve got one button, and it’s on.”
The cost of a relentless pressure to push harder, go faster, be more, and do more may be more than we can bear without significant fallout. There are a few of us trying to push back. In the academic world, the efforts of Vicki Abeles and the Race to Nowhere movement continues to gain momentum. She adeptly addresses the consequence of unrelenting pressure in the academic world. Too often the best and brightest students are pressed to cheat and lie to get the grades that are expected of them. Lesser students are known to give up and drop out. Most of the kids figure out a way to decompress and compensate: binge drinking and other forms of substance abuse are commonplace. Disordered eating is so tightly woven in the fabric of daily life that it is often not recognized until the behavior is diagnosable.
In the adult world, overwhelming stress seems to be the norm. Sixty-plus hour work weeks are commonplace. Employees have vacation time they don’t or can’t use. Others call in sick, show up late or find ways to check out as they struggle with depression and burnout. But companies continue to downsize and hoard cash and everyone is pressed to do more with less–except the architects of all the cost savings that result in better earnings for stockholders, and bigger bonuses for themselves. Too often overwhelmed adults fall back on whatever coping mechanisms they learned when they were young. Ironically, the costs to business are astronomical.
CAN WE PUSH BACK?
People know they need to manage stress. The tough part is figuring out how to bridge the gap between knowledge and behavior. First, it is not enough to talk about how debilitating overwhelming stress can be, we need to reset the bar.
The cost of stress can be measured in every dimension: mentally, emotionally, physically and physiologically. Unfortunately, stress is typically acknowledged by everyone but the stress junkies. I am fascinated that in most organizations, it is the stress junkies that get to set the bar. It is patently unhealthy to expect everyone to match the intensity of the most intense person in the room.
The counterpoint is that we need to appreciate the need for enough stress. Being bored, disengaged and isolated is also very stressful. We need to figure out how to navigate a “good enough” level of stress to keep us alert, focused and engaged with life, especially since the target zone is different for different people.
MORE IS NOT NECESSARILY BETTER
Second, we need to reconsider how much is enough. More is not necessarily better. Period. Changing this mindset will take some doing as the illusion “more is better” seems embedded in the American psyche. Research highlights the cost of stress in terms of lost productivity, epidemic lifestyle disease and the skyrocketing costs of health insurance and health care. The stats should give every employer pause, and permission to reset priorities.
Third, we need to adjust our expectations and allow everyone–children, students and adults– time to tend to our basic needs: safety, shelter, enough sleep, adequate food, and regular physical activity. What would change if you fell asleep early enough to wake rested–without feeling deprived of time for yourself? How would you feel if your day allowed time to move in a joyful way, whether that movement included scheduled exercise, recreation or play? What would it mean for you to have the resources you need to purchase, prepare, and enjoy food it in it’s rightful place? Maybe each of us can find a way to start pushing back today. Where will you push back first?