When Did Sadness Become a Disease? How We've Pathologized Everyday Life
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One Nation Under Stress: The Trouble with Stress as an Idea
By Dana Becker
Oxford University Press. 245 pp.
How Everyone Became Depressed: The Rise and Fall of the Nervous Breakdown
By Edward Shorter
Oxford University Press. 256 pp.
Here’s the bad news: you’re stressed out and depressed. The good news? According to two recent books, you’ve got a lot of company. But, given the ubiquity of stress and depression these days, what do those terms actually mean anymore, and what effects do they have on our lives and our society as a whole?
While Becker’s book focuses on stress and Shorter’s solely on depression, they tell a larger, and largely similar, story: how these concepts have eroded through the decades into catchall conditions so pervasive that they’ve become virtually meaningless as terms for diagnosis or treatment. More troubling, according to these authors, is that each of these “conditions” has become so prevalent that the distinction between normal and abnormal pressures or moods has become completely blurred. And once stress and depression are considered to be as ordinary as the common cold, we all become targets for Big Pharma’s marketing campaigns of medications that may not actually help us. Also, there’s one more danger, the authors charge: in focusing inward on our own stressors or personal capacities to bounce back or rebalance, we risk losing sight of the impact of larger societal and economic pressures and policies—areas where readjustment could make a real difference in beginning to slow the treadmill quality of contemporary life for the benefit of all, perhaps especially for women.
That’s the discomforting bigger picture that reading these books one after the other yields. Yet, with their distinct subjects and emphases, each author comes to somewhat different conclusions about who’s to blame and how to move forward.
In the more compelling of these books, One Nation Under Stress: The Trouble with Stress as an Idea, Dana Becker, a professor of social work at Bryn Mawr College, uses a potent mixture of social-science research, critical thinking, and sarcasm to get her points across. She blames general anxieties about social change, economic uncertainty, and possible terrorist threats—combined with countless misleading articles and ads about what produces stress and how it operates—for creating a public consciousness saturated with the dangers of stress and the benefits of soothing lotions, yoga classes, and calming medications. According to Becker, this nonstop hype has helped elevate the uncertainties, fears, and pressures of modern life to the status of a seeming disease so widespread and damaging that it’s no wonder a British newspaper dubbed stress the “Black Death of the 21st Century.”
Yet focusing on stress as if it were synonymous with anxieties that originate from within, rather than a reaction to external pressures or forces from without, turns the word’s original historical meaning inside out, Becker says. She traces the start of this turnaround back to the 19th-century concept of neurasthenia, or “nerve weakness,” popularized by American neurologist George M. Beard, who asserted that the pressures of modern life were pushing people beyond the limited energy they possessed. Hungarian-Canadian endocrinologist Hans Selye solidified the public’s perception of stress and its impact on our mental and physical well-being. In The Stress of Life, published in 1956, he defined stress as “the rate of wear and tear caused by life.” Stress was problematic, he said, because it disrupted our natural state of homeostasis, and the road back to healthy homeostasis, he argued, involved successful adaptation to life’s stresses.
But whose job was it—and is it—to do the adapting required to reach healthy homeostasis? Is it society’s responsibility to legislate public policy and fund safety-net programs, such as Social Security and Medicare, that help lessen the economic and social stressors wearing people down? Or is it each individual’s responsibility to figure out a solution to everything from bad hair to life’s larger and more pressing issues, like not being able to find, or afford, the appropriate therapy or educational program for a disabled child?