Our Constant Struggle With Stress

Dana Becker, who has a new book on stress, dislikes contemporary understandings of the term:

Instead of thinking about stress as something outside us, it’s now become integral to the self. So the problem of stress has become our own personal predicament to solve, and there’s no dearth of advice about how to do this: eat more kale, get some therapy, take a yoga class. The message is: change yourself, change your lifestyle, or learn to adapt to the stress. Consider what it means to accept this way of thinking about stress. If women believe that it’s our job to manage the stress of combining paid employment and family work, we’re more likely to “de-stress” by putting more bath oil in the bath and less likely to work toward changing family-unfriendly workplace policies or to agitate for universal daycare.

Alexander Nazaryan reviews Becker’s book:

[T]oday, not only has the notion of being stressed-out come to embody a whole host of issues that may have non-mental underpinnings, but we are constantly told that we can marshal what the poet John Berryman smirkingly called our “inner resources” to wage an effective battle against this invisible enemy. This is Becker’s objection to the culture of stress: Stress exists, but it’s been blown out of proportion, falsely rendered, and has spawned an entire ecosystem of pseudo-psychological empowerment, from therapy to VitaminWater that purportedly offers relaxation.

Stress is not the issue, Becker says. Life is difficult, unknowable and often harrowing, and there is no use pretending that two minutes spent in downward dog is going to change all that. One more inclined to philosophy than sociology might note that we have replaced Kierkegaard’s prevailing anxiety about existence with a far more mundane unease, one we think we can eliminate precisely because it is earthbound.