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Combating Cultural Stress

By: Howard Murad, MD
Posted: June 13, 2008

It’s 1:20 pm, and Karen—a longtime client—is late, yet again, for her 1 pm treatment. She rushes in, drops her things and collapses in your chair, saying, “It’s been a crazy day; please help me relax.” You’re guiding her through a few deep breaths when her cell phone starts to ring. She turns it off. You begin again. Although Karen’s time has been cut short, you do your best to provide excellent service. When her mask is on, you reach for your BlackBerry to check in with your son’s teacher. His report card is being e-mailed to you. You open it, gasp and think, “How can he get into college with these grades?” Your heartbeat accelerates. You are distracted. All you can think about is finishing with your client so that you can call the school. In the meantime, the receptionist slides a note under your door, alerting you that the computer system has gone down and the remaining appointments for the week have been deleted.

If you can relate to this scene, you are experiencing a new type of anxiety called cultural stress. It is pervasive and thrives in today’s world. The word stress as it relates to emotions became part of the English vocabulary in the 1950s and originated with the onset of the Cold War. During this time, bomb shelters were built to protect citizens from atom bombs, but American society would not permit people to admit fear. Instead, the feeling was dubbed stress.

The domino effect

In the years since, stress has evolved. Cultural stress started infiltrating people’s lives 20 years ago as society became more technologically savvy and prosperous. And it doesn’t affect only adults—cultural stress starts young and is initiated by parents. New moms and dads often are anxious about getting their children into the best preschools. In fact, it’s common for unborn children to be placed on a preschool waiting list. The next focus is on ensuring that the child is enrolled in all the right extracurricular activities—from preschool through high school. This cycle puts pressure on children to excel at a very young age, while placing a burden on the parents to make more money to pay for the education and activities.

This scenario—coupled with Americans’ increasing affluence—has a far-reaching domino effect. In order to make more money to pay for all the activities in which you and your family are involved, you must work longer hours. According to a United States government report documented on The American Institute of Stress’ Web site in 1999, Americans now put in more time on the job—an average of 47 hours per week—than workers in any other industrialized nation.

The more money you make, the more things you buy. And this phenomenon extends well beyond possessions. As society has become more informed, people are more aware of the endless possibilities that are available in the form of clubs, lifestyles, diets and leisure activities, to name just a few. All of this has put a great strain on people’s health and well-being, especially because the vast majority is barely keeping up.