The 134,000-member American Psychological Association recently published its annual report on stress. The report is trademarked: Stress in America™. Yet this official stamp of self-approval can’t hide the hollowness of the report.
Millions of Americans are struggling to keep their stress levels down. It’s vitally important that mental-health professionals provide the media with high quality psychological knowledge concerning this epidemic of misery. This knowledge should be made available at every opportunity. As in previous years, however, the APA’s latest report offers mostly numerical findings and percentage comparisons. No psychological insights are presented about the origins and causes of high stress.
The report’s numbers really only disclose that a bad situation appears to be getting worse: During the school year American teenagers experience more stress than adults, and teens believe the stress they’re experiencing far exceeds what might be considered healthy. Only 16 percent believe their stress level is on the decline, the report says, while twice as many teens say their stress level has increased and will likely continue to increase. The report is based on a survey done last summer of 1,950 adults and 1,038 teens.
The APA does mention that money and work continue to be the most commonly mentioned stressors for adults, adding that “these issues are complex and difficult to manage, often leading to more stress over time . . .” But the report says nothing that might at least hint at how and why issues concerning money and work “are complex and difficult to manage.” (I come back to this point further on.)
The APA notes that the majority of teens say the challenges they face at school are a major source of their stress. However, no details are provided that might explain why the school experience is so stressful. The report says, “Many teens also report feeling overwhelmed (31 percent) and depressed or sad (30 percent) as a result of stress.” This statement implies that the stress itself is causing those negative emotions, but it can also be the other way around: Negative emotions caused by inner conflict are producing the stress. Yet the APA does not mention how such internal factors, in addition to external ones, contribute to stress.
This stubborn refusal of the APA to consider the role of the unconscious mind in producing stress is perplexing, even bizarre, especially in light of the gravity of the problem. Psychology is supposed to be the study of our inner life. Yet the APA seems reluctant to investigate the essentials of its own discipline.
The report mentions “healthy ways to cope” with stress such as good diet, moderate consumption of food, and exercise. What kind of psychology is it that can’t get past advice about food and exercise? And why do we need to just “cope?” Let’s get to the heart of the problem.
So, enough said about this APA report. Here’s some knowledge that’s more helpful in understanding and overcoming stress.
Some stress is unavoidable, of course, given life’s many challenges. Yet stress is also produced unwittingly within us, often to a degree that becomes quite painful. The following example looks at self-induced stress concerning the issue—money—that’s cited in the report. Money can be exceedingly important to teenagers and adults as a form of status. Having status is a way to feel accepted and even to feel superior. Individuals who believe they don’t have enough money can become stressed. Sometimes these individuals do have sufficient money, just not as much as they would like. So even though they have enough, they can still become stressed. This means the stress they experience isn’t based on reality factors. It’s based on negative emotions and flawed perceptions.
People can learn how to reduce the stress that’s produced through their emotional relationship with money. It’s common for us to experience ourselves through feelings of self-doubt, emptiness, and unworthiness. Many smart people making their way in the world harbor conscious and unconscious self-doubt. Deep down, many of us brush up against feelings of being inauthentic or phony. We can’t feel our goodness or integrity. The problem can be traced to an inner conflict: While we consciously want to feel good about ourselves, we’re prone to experiencing painful self-doubt that results from unresolved inner conflict.
Hence, an asset such as money can become exceedingly important. The money serves as evidence or “proof” of having value. People are now using money for an impossible purpose, to fill an emotional hole. Money becomes inordinately important to them, and they can feel anxiety, tension, and stress in their belief and fear that they don’t have enough.
The psychological solution is to recognize one’s emotional attachment to, or identification with, the notion or impression of lacking value. Usually that attachment is unconscious. Of course, we’re really not lacking in value. Each of us is just as valuable and worthy as the next person. But our emotions have a life and a “rationality” of their own. Though our impression of lacking value is irrational, we tend to remain entangled in such unresolved negative emotions from our conflicted and subjective impressions of childhood.
When fretting over money in this way, the individual can now become aware of his or her attachment to the impression of lacking in essential, intrinsic value. The person becomes conscious of the unconscious choice he or she has been making to feel that emptiness or unworthiness and to recycle that feeling.
When we see this choice, and bring the inner conflict into focus, we can now say “No Thanks” to the negative experience and free ourselves from it. Of course, we might have to do this repeatedly over time to make it stick. That means we have to learn this knowledge—this particular insight about the nature of our suffering—and be willing to apply it.
We can also acquire insight by understanding the psychological defense that keeps the attachment from becoming conscious. We can begin to understand that the yearning for money serves as a defense. The unconscious defense contends: “I’m not interested in feeling insignificant or unworthy. Look at how good I feel when I have money. This is how I want to feel.” This is, of course, a lie (albeit, an unconscious one) we tell ourselves. When we see the truth behind the defense, we become conscious of what was previously unconscious. Now we benefit by knowing what is true and real about our inner life, even as it’s a bit humbling to see this truth.
When money is being used as a prop to support the unstable defense, the individual becomes stressed-out about money. This person is actually required over time to be more anxious about money, and thereby to feel the stress more acutely, in order to maintain the effectiveness of the defense.
Seeing through this defense raises our intelligence. We now see our own role in producing stress. We have now identified the conflict: “I want to feel value, but I’m attached to not feeling value.” We understand how money is being used as a defense, and that the defense is part of our resistance to seeing ourselves objectively. This awareness makes it possible for us, through our enhanced intelligence, to resolve the conflict and reduce the stress. Of course, there are many other ways that money, work, and other facets or life are involved in emotional conflict, and all of these ways can be revealed, published, and learned in order to help lessen our stress.
Money is also an “antidote” and defense for people who are determined unconsciously to go through life feeling deprived or refused. These two negative emotions, which produce the-glass-is-half-empty syndrome, are left over from childhood. When unresolved, these negative emotions produce greed, envy, anxiety, and stress.
Knowledge such as this can be learned by just about everyone. The APA and other mental-health organizations have to make a better effort to get beneath the symptoms and to dispense relevant knowledge—not just a bunch of statistics and percentages—about all the ways we produce stress from within.