What Causes Emotional Stress?

What Causes Emotional Stress?

Emotional stress has many causes including worries about money, work, relationships or traumatic events including care-giving and support. A new source of emotional stress today is technology. Years ago we were told that technology would improve our lives, increase leisure time and make life easier. And this is true to an extent. I can talk with anybody, anywhere in the world from my phone. If I use Skype, I can see them, too. Tasks that used to take more time and many other people to complete, such as banking, can be done in the palm of my hand using my mobile phone. The computing power of my mobile phone is greater than the computing power that helped to send men to the moon. Computers allow access to enormous amounts of information with the ability to source the cumulative knowledge of the world. This “democratisation” of knowledge is unprecedented in history. While undoubtedly convenient and stimulating, what are the consequences of this ‘switched on’ and globally connected way of life?

The first consequence is it increases the speed of life making us feel more stressed. There’s pressure to complete tasks more quickly. Instead of waiting a few days for a letter to arrive in the mail, it’s delivered almost immediately to your email inbox. And with that delivery comes the expectation that you will respond to it right away. Social media is also a potential source of emotional stress. It’s wonderful that we are connected with the world but how often do you sit on a train or around a coffee table and notice that everyone is looking at their phone? They connect with the world but not with the person sitting next to them. This paradox of connection and disconnection is another potential stress in our lives. We are more globally connected than ever and yet many people feel isolated and lonely even though they are surrounded by millions of people.

In his excellent book ‘Sapiens – a brief history of humankind’ [i], Yuval Noah Harari describes the experience of our ancestors millions of years ago. Homo sapiens appeared 200,000 years ago and he makes the point that genetically and physiologically, we are no different to our hunter gather ancestors who roamed in small tribes of around 150 people. Three revolutions dramatically changed our physical environment. The first happened 70,000 years ago and was a cognitive revolution, which distinguished us from other homo species. It allowed a shared imagined reality and ability to communicate. The second revolution was 12,000 years ago. This was the agricultural revolution when we moved from tribal living into villages and then cities. Family and village structure provided guidance, support, ritual, comfort, certainty, healthcare, respect and a place for all generations. The third revolution happened 500 years ago described as a scientific revolution when people shifted from religious dogma and towards understanding the operation of the world and universe.

Today is a globalised technological age in which family and village structures often don’t exist. Our greatest strength is an ability to communicate and think in abstract ways but the downside is information overload, too many choices, too many demands, a focus on the individual rather than family and community, individual sense of entitlement and high expectations. These are all potent sources of emotional stress.

My parents lived through world wars, a global depression, racism and the holocaust. They left their home countries to move to a new country and from there, with a young family, settled yet again in another country. Millions of people share similar or worse stories. Wars and conflicts have led to millions of deaths and displacement. Even though we are bombarded daily by stories of violence, conflicts and murders, it is the safest and most peaceful period in human history. A focus on negative news makes us more stressed than ever.

[i] Sapiens. A Brief History of Humankind Yuval Noah Harari Vintage Books 2014