We all know that stress leads to disease. Research is constantly adding to a list of health concerns associated with stress, from heart disease to Alzheimer’s. Stress has become so run of the mill that it’s now woven into the social fabric of our societies. Many of us feel too “burnt-out, tired and under pressure to participate in civic life”, according to a new study that points to the scale of the problem. “The symptoms of a manic modern world are real, but the diagnosis is wrong. We are not all working more, sleeping less and feeling more rushed,” lead researcher Jenevieve Treadwell wrote. “The core problem is our higher tempo of life.”
We know this. And yet the burnout epidemic is getting worse. We live at this “higher tempo,” because we are shamed if we fall behind, and praised for keeping up, even when it harms us. That’s how we came to believe our experience of stress is a necessary and noble sacrifice that humans make in service of the great and mighty economy, which matters more than the lives of us mere mortals. But burnout isn’t honourable, or inevitable. It is a wound. The sooner we recognise this, the sooner we can take steps to counter the damage.
Stress feels uncomfortable. It puts us in a state of fight and flight, and makes us want to growl and snap. This was perfect in the environment of evolutionary adaptiveness, where the things that caused stress had fangs and claws and could run at 40mph. Increased heart rate and blood pressure gave oxygen to our muscles so we could escape. In the physical effort to survive, we would use up all that extra energy before our bodies returned to normal, allowing that system to repair any damage done by the extra exertion.
But these days, fighting or fleeing from the things that cause us stress would be pointless at best. Instead, we smile and we’re polite, because lashing out wouldn’t allow us to keep our jobs or stay safe. But that same stress response still happens in our bodies; instead of being spent, it just gets stuck. Modern-day stressors can include everything from body shame to white supremacy; we never get a chance to return to our baseline.
This adds up to constant increased strain on, for instance, our cardiovascular system, with no opportunity to heal the damage. Those injured places can develop plaques, which break loose and cause heart attacks. We are living in an upside-down world where stress itself is now more likely to kill us than the things that cause our stress. And we accept that this is normal and true.
The only way to end this epidemic is to heal these physical wounds. We all already know how to do this: by prioritising sleep, physical activity, loving social connection, nourishing food, mindfulness, laughter, creative self-expression. But finding time, and permission to heal – in a world that glamorises stress –is more complicated. We’re told it’s shamefully indulgent to luxuriate in basic human needs like sleep and connection. When we recognise that burnout from chronic stress is not a badge of honour but a dangerous injury, we see the necessity of giving people access to the resources they need to recover, especially time to rest without feeling guilty or indebted for accepting help.
In other words, the cure for burnout isn’t self-care. The cure for burnout is all of us caring for each other. No amount of “self-care” can stand against the flood of unceasing demands and unmeetable goals that keep us constantly striving and sacrificing. You can’t have enough bubble baths or manicures or long walks on the beach to compensate for the feeling that you owe it to society to squeeze yourself empty like a tube of toothpaste to be discarded when you have nothing left to offer.
At a national level, “all of us caring for each other” looks like enforcing more stringent worker protection laws, reducing adverse childhood experiences or ending systems of oppression.
Pretending wellness is a matter of personal lifestyle choice is a convenient way for governments to uphold systems of oppression. Until world leaders decide our humanity is more valuable than our contributions to the economy, we can help undo some of the daily harms of chronic stress by offering care to each other. It sounds like this: you deserve sleep and laughter, even if the world says you should be doing things for others every moment. You deserve all the time you need to get adequate rest and connect with your loved ones. You don’t owe it to anyone to exhaust yourself until you have nothing left. You aren’t required to have a white kitchen or a narrow waist or a formal education to earn care. You deserve to thrive just as you are because your humanity, your individuality is inherently valuable. You deserve a culture that believes this.
There’s a lot more to do, large-scale change to create. But it can’t start until we see this in ourselves and each other.
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