*This is an article from the Fall 2022 issue of Contentment Magazine.
By Frank Forencich, DAIS
“Men have become the tools of their tools.”
Henry David Thoreau
I work with computers almost every day and in a typical session, I’m forced to grapple with viruses, phishing attacks, bad passwords, software that doesn’t work, hardware that needs updating, and all manner of digital demons that demand my attention and send my cortisol levels through the roof. So, you won’t be surprised at my reaction when someone suggests that technology is, or should be, a remedy for stress. From my point of view, technology is one of the primary drivers of my angst.
According to the prevailing narrative, technology can help us identify people who are stressed and in turn, help them find some relief. But to my way of thinking, we’re getting ahead of ourselves and leapfrogging over some powerful human fundamentals. For example, if we want to know how stressed people are, why not simply ask them? Or more to the point, why not just listen while they talk about their lives? Human stories are rich with clues about how people are feeling in their bodies, something that psychologist Martin Seligman recognized clearly. In his work with patients, Seligman observed distinctive explanatory styles in people with depression.1 No big surprises here: the depressive explanatory style is personal (“I suck.”) pervasive (“I suck at everything.”) and permanent (“I’ll always suck.”) When we hear people talk this way, we can be pretty sure that they’re either depressed or will be soon.
This suggests a similar approach for recognizing stressed individuals. As most of us now know, stress is a frenemy, which is to say it has benefits and dangers, depending on dose and exposure. All of which is represented by the familiar inverse U curve of rising benefit, followed by a tipping point, diminishing returns and eventually, full-blown disease. It’s easy to imagine how people talk on various parts of the curve. When people say “I’m so bored…” you can be pretty certain that they’re below the ideal stress level. But give them something interesting and now they’ll sound energized, excited, eager, willing, challenged, creative and curious. This is where we want our people to hang out.
But when stress begins to overwhelm, people reach a tipping point and begin to ‘tell stories’ of neophobia (reluctance to try new things), anhedonia (lack of pleasure in things that were formerly enjoyable), pessimism, hesitation and reluctance, caution and conservatism, and early signs of dark humor. And when things get really bad, people lapse into learned helplessness, neurotoxicity, and incipient disease. In this zone, we’re likely to hear talk of cynicism, misanthropy, doom-ism, nihilism, resignation, defeatism and some really nasty dark humor. It’s a grim picture.
To be sure, none of this story-based evaluation is certain and it’s clearly not hard science. But it does allow us to make some useful judgment calls about how people are doing. And even better, it’s a stress solution in its own right. The very act of listening creates a humane relational atmosphere that most people find comforting. In fact, many of us are craving this very thing; we want to feel felt, we want to feel seen, and we want to feel heard. By listening humanely coaches, teachers, and therapists create the very conditions that lead to a more relaxed state of mind and body.
But when we scan, test, probe, monitor, and track people with electronic devices, we create an objectified, sanitized, and artificial relationship that many people find distressing, inhumane and yes, stressful. Many of us are tired of being measured and evaluated as it is. Is this just one more step on the road to the digital management of the whole human experience?
All of which brings up some obvious questions: Why aren’t we better listeners? Or to be more precise, why are so many of our professional interactions so rushed? Why do we have such a chronic sense of urgency in our dealings with one another? And why do we have such little confidence in our primal human skills that we feel the need to supplement with gadgets? Couldn’t our energy be better spent on active listening and simple communicating? Shouldn’t we be taking more time with people?
Technical interventions are often presented as inexpensive solutions that will save time and money, but there are serious displacement costs that come along for the ride. For every hour we spend agonizing over digital details, that’s an hour that we aren’t spending actually listening to people, an hour that could be spent actually communicating via the rich and powerful sensory capabilities of our bodies. This is a huge cost, one that never makes it on to the spreadsheet. Our digital obsession threatens to displace our humanity; all of which ultimately increases our stress.
Another claim for technological intervention is that it will help people learn what their bodies are doing and help them find better ways to control their autonomic state. This supposes that people (animals) are incapable of doing this on their own. To be sure, some people are so deep in the red zone and so unaware of their own bodies that technological assistance or biofeedback might be helpful in a clinical setting. But as so often happens, we don’t give the human animal the credit that it deserves. Animals have been sensing their internal states with some precision for millions of years. If given adequate time and the right surroundings, most human animals can eventually come to “feel what you’re feeling.” The trick is to create the right conditions and above all, slow down.
All of which suggests that we need to get back to the human/animal fundamentals. Call me a Luddite if you will, but when working with the typical human animal, the best way is the old way. It’s not so much that I’m against technology, but rather that I’m for the deep, ancient, and extremely sensitive capabilities of the human animal. In some clinical settings, in some special cases, the gadgets might be a good choice, but as a general practice, the best approach is to treat people like animals and pay more attention to their lived experience. Listen to their stories and give them time. Take a breath and slow down. It’s all going to be OK.
- Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Learned optimism: How to change your mind and your life. New York: Vintage Books.
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