By Natalia Braun, September 2019
“When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.”Alexander Den Heijer
We are living in an age of stress. The very word ‘stress’ has become an everyday, unavoidable companion. In recent decades, our “stress (or allostatic) loads” have risen starkly. Today’s individuals increasingly suffer from what military has called VUCA: volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.1 We struggle with non-stop changes and transformations without regaining equilibrium, maintaining pathological stress levels.
An increased stress load is the result of constant exposures to stressors and the failure for bodily processes to normalise. Remaining in a state of alert, the body continues to produce stress hormones. Over an extended period of stress energy resources are depleted by continually trying but failing to recover; the body is no longer equipped to fight stress. This eventual exhaustion phase may result in tiredness, depression, anxiety, and overwhelm2. Such continuous exposure to stress can cause major physical disturbances, for example, in the nervous and hormonal systems, and vulnerability to stress-related health conditions.3
The rise in our stress loads in recent times can be attributed to globalisation and digitalisation, which have dramatically increased the amount and speed of information to be processed. It is also a consequence of neoliberal tendencies: placing sole responsibility on people for their physical and mental health, overemphasis on individualism, conformity, short-term profits, unregulated markets, unrealistic work demands, and the expectation to shine with positivity no matter what.
At the same time, there is decreased social support and superficial digital connectedness can create personal loneliness. Existential loneliness and constant pressure to succeed add further stressors to the already overloaded individuals. All this damages health.4
In response, there are multitudes of counter-stress measures. Organisations swarm with all sorts of resilience and mindfulness training, well-being programmes and coaches, meditation and yoga classes and the ab/use of Buddhist philosophy. These measures are of limited success, but still contribute to a lucrative industry and overall hype, with corporate benefits obscured by a vague evidence-base.5 The limited success of an overwhelming number of these counter-stress attempts, and the majority of research, is owing to their exclusive focus on understanding stress and coping, rather than changing the environment and systems.
Conventional health psychology is also to blame with its focus on health behaviours and adaptation to harmful environments rather than encouraging that these conditions change. As a result, the victims of stress are blamed for failing to survive in an environment where it is impossible to survive.6 One built by toxic organisations, hubristic leaders, insufficient governments, and lack of efficient social and economic systems that add to existential fears.
As Wilde (2016, p. 99) wrote,
“knowledge about the stress problem has not stopped the stress problem” .
Science, organisations, and society have to aim for the only change that will reduce stress: equality.7 Without that, all the knowledge about stress will merely treat symptoms sweeping the underlying causes under the rug.
1 U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center (2019). Who first originated the term VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity)?
2Selye, H. (1946). The general adaptation syndrome and the diseases of adaptation. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 6(2), 117–230.
3 Kalat, J. (2013). Biological Psychology. Dehli: Wadsworth; Abraham, C., Conner, M., Jones, F., & O’Connor, D. (2016). Health Psychology. London and New York: Routledge.
4 Beattie, P. (2019). The Road to Psychopathology: Neoliberalism and the Human Mind. Journal of Social Issues, 75(1), 89–112;Cain, J. (2018). It’s Time to Confront Student Mental Health Issues Associated with Smartphones and Social Media. American journal of pharmaceutical education, 82(7), 6862; Esposito, L., & Perez, F. M. (2014). Neoliberalism and the commodification of mental health. Humanity & Society, 38(4), 414-442.
5 Purser, R. E. (2018). Critical perspectives on corporate mindfulness; Hafenbrack, A. C., & Vohs, K. D. (2018). Mindfulness meditation impairs task motivation but not performance. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 147, 1-15.
6 Wilde, J. (2016). The Social Psychology of Organizations: Diagnosing toxicity and intervening in the workplace. Routledge.
7 Wilkinson, R., & Pickett, K. (2009). The Spirit Level. Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better. Allen Lane: London.
About the author
Natalia Braun spent around 20 years in change, human resources and communications management in international companies as well as journalism before transitioning into professional psychology. She has been studying psychology at the University of Derby, UK, and in her MSc thesis conducted an Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis in the areas of health psychology and embodiment. She is going to continue qualitative research in these fields in her PhD. She lives in Switzerland and provides coaching, consulting and career counselling services in her private practice being an accredited psychometric assessor and coach. In her corporate work, she came across living examples of burnout and dysfunctional work environment that misuses psychology for the purposes of profit gross and power. Her research and applied professional interests are within (critical) health psychology, psychotherapy (particularly Gestalt, existential and expressive arts approaches), embodiment, dance, sexuality, and hubris syndrome in leadership.