By Doni Joszef
Why do kids seem overly agitated, aggressive, and impulsive?
Why do students seem less teachable, teachers less tolerant, and parents less reasonable?
Why does religion feel more rote and repetitive than it does refreshing and reparative?
Why are marriages struggling strenuously to endure the strain of socioeconomic, not to mention emotional, survival?
Why are we anxiously overworked, or helplessly underworked, but nowhere close to a stable middle?
Why is depression on the rise, sanity in decline, and stability lost in the ever-elusive distance?
Why do bad things happen to good people?
Why is the sky blue?
All of the above questions have two things in common: (a) they’ve been posed many times; (b) they will not be resolved in the coming statements.
While each phenomenon has components and complexities of its own particular nature, I believe there is an underlying force that amplifies, accentuates, and exacerbates the pain of these challenges. It is this insidious ingredient that I wish to weigh in on.
The dilemma. The nature of the dilemma can be stated in a three-word sentence: We are stressed. By stressed, I mean stressed to the max. Pushed and pulled, mentally and emotionally, in more directions than we are biologically equipped for. But that doesn’t stop us from trying.
Stress defined. Stress is not an emotion or a cognition, but more a state of discomfort in response to an overload of internal and external demands (called stressors). If you feel stressed, it’s because you have too many voices demanding your undivided attention at the same time. Sometimes these voices come in the form of angry spouses, other times in the form of Angry Birds. More often than not, the demands pile up from within our own minds, reminding ourselves of all the unfinished, unresolved, unsettling items we assemble on our unconscious to-do list. This is your brain on stress.
Now, aside from being the number one cause of every illness under the sun, stress lowers our brain’s ability to inhibit aggression. As stress levels escalate (think: kids, spouses, parents, teachers, bosses, and iPhones buzzing simultaneously) we respond with one of two emotions: (a) anger (= fight stress); (b) anxiety (= flight stress).
Angry types tend to overreact to their stress (binge) and then compensate by feeling remorse (purge). If you’ve ever lost your temper, exploded in the type of fashion that makes candid-camera YouTube clips go viral, or held your hand on the car horn continuously while sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic, you may be familiar with this type of stress response.
Anxious types (myself included) tend to underreact, repress, or deny their stress (purge), and then compensate by feeling resentment (binge). To be polite and stressed at the same time is a highly challenging endeavor. Hence the invention of passive aggression. I’m a pro.
Regarding civilized forms of aggression, Freud aptly said that the first human to hurl a verbal insult instead of hurling a stone at his fellow was the founder of civilized society. Freud was nutty, but he was sharp.
Now, there is no denying the role that technology has played in amplifying our stress levels, but there is also no benefit in bemoaning and blaming reality for being what it is. Technology, and the stress it often triggers, is here to stay. The question becomes not where to point the finger, but where to point our minds. And the answer, I believe, is inward.
Husbands are stressed; wives are stressed; parents are stressed; children are stressed; teachers are stressed; students are stressed; employers are stressed; employees are stressed.
The blame game only adds fuels of resentment to the flames of our stress. Perhaps there is no one or nothing to blame, per se. Perhaps the underlying issue is not a moral one, but a medical one. Less a matter of theology, and more an issue of psychology.
The nature of the dilemma can be stated in a three-word sentence: We are stressed. v
Doni Joszef is a cognitive psychotherapist practicing with adolescents and young adults in Cedarhurst. Visit his website, DeficitOfAttention.Com, or call 516-316-2247 to meet in person.