Why Are We So Stressed Out?

The pursuit of wealth may be derailing us from finding happiness

The exploding ubiquity of technology that keeps us tethered to work and social obligations 24-7 may also play a role in boosting our stress levels. Nearly 15 percent of email users described themselves as addicted to it, and nearly two-thirds of people with email on their phone or other portable device said they checked email every time a new message arrived, according to a 2007 survey by AOL. While those studies didn’t look at whether anxiety was associated with the technology, Scottish scientists who surveyed academics, architects and others who work in creative fields found that a third felt stressed by their email, with women especially likely to feel pressured to answer it, according to a 2007 study in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

“It’s very stressful now to have all of the pressures of the Internet and feeling like we have to multitask all the time and feeling like we’re never turned off. A lot of stress is placed on us in terms of our energy and brain power,” said Stephanie Smith, Psy.D., a psychologist and public education coordinator for the American Psychological Association in Colorado. “From a purely functional standpoint, we don’t function well if we’re doing multiple things at a time.”

Nonetheless, as a society we have lived through seriously stressful periods in the past and have come out on the other side.

“I don’t know how we can really measure whether one period is more stressful than another. In every era, people think that they’re stressed,” says Esther Sternberg, M.D., director of the integrative neural immune program at the National Institute of Mental Health. “Change, uncertainty and novelty are all triggers of the stress response, and we’re going through that big time. It’s a society, en masse, experiencing major, major life stressors all at the same time.

“By comparison with, say, before 9/11 or before the economic downturn, many of these stressors did not exist for us,” she says. “But we’ve gone through decades when they probably were about the same, and nevertheless people did come through those terribly stressful times.”

Video: Gail Saltz, MD: What is the Best Remedy for Stress?

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