Sadly, we’re all too familiar with the symptoms of stress - feeling overburdened, irritable or anxious; finding it hard to make decisions, unable to concentrate, restless; shallow breathing, suffering from tiredness, or that sick feeling in your stomach.
Stress is clearly a problem. According to the 2012 American Psychological Association (APA) study, Stress in America, highly stressed people are less likely to eat healthily, less likely to exercise, are more likely to fail at weight loss programs, and get half as much sleep as people reporting low levels of stress. Or, as Psychology Today succinctly puts it, “Stress Kills.” So what are we to do about stress?
As the issue of stress becomes more and more mainstream, an increasing number of people and organisations are turning to ‘Mindfulness’ as the solution. As The Guardian has noted, organisations from Google to the NHS to Transport for London and even Harvard Business School have built some form of mindfulness practice into their operations.
For those of you new to the party, mindfulness is about being fully present in the moment, learning to calmly acknowledge and accept feelings, thoughts, and sensations without forcing things or hiding from them. It is about is about becoming more self-aware in your everyday life, more conscious of what you’re feeling, and more attentive to your impact. Mindfulness can be practised in daily life through conscious focusing, as well as more formal mindfulness practices, such as mindfulness meditation and activities like yoga and tai-chi which help develop awareness of your breathing. These therapies have been found to be useful for reducing stress, anxiety and depression, helping manage a wide range of physical conditions, and for general wellbeing.
I want to argue here that mindfulness is not the answer. Let me be clear: I’m not against mindfulness. The evidence is good suggesting that mindfulness practice can help people cope with stress. My issue is that as stress is increasingly being seen to be a major problem, mindfulness is being put forward as the solution. It isn’t, and here’s why.
Mindfulness can help us to relax from the physical manifestations of stress. Meditation, breathing exercises and yoga can help us to calm and soothe our emotions when we’re feeling stressed. The ability to bring our emotions back into balance is a tremendously valuable skill. Mindfulness can also help us to develop a sense of perspective which may work to reduce our stress levels. By being present, attentive and more self-aware, we may be able to recognise that the things causing us stress are smaller than they first appeared, thus alleviating our stress levels.
So what’s the problem with that? Well, mindfulness places its focus squarely on the individual. It’s about me managing my thoughts and emotions. If I am stressed, it’s up to me to do something about it. This is fine, as far as it goes, but it misses the fact that there is typically an environmental or systemic component to my stress. To illustrate, I’m going to focus briefly on the education sector.
According to The Guardian, almost four out of 10 teachers quit within a year of qualifying, with 11,000 leaving the profession before they have really begun their career. Teachers are reported as being “exhausted, stressed and burnt out.” According to the BBC, one in 10 teachers say they have been prescribed anti-depressant drugs to cope with the pressure of their jobs, with 22% increasing their alcohol intake and 21% consuming more caffeine in response to stress.
Also from the BBC, the stress of exams is having a serious impact on the mental health of children as young as six. Of 420 members of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers who responded to a poll, almost half said pupils in their school had self-harmed - and 89% said testing was the main source of stress. In a different BBC article, of the 201 UK people aged between 10 and 19 who killed themselves in 2014, 29% were facing exams or exam results, with four dying on an exam day or the day after. This is compared to 22% who had been bullied. This suggests that exam stress is a larger contributory factor to youth suicide than bullying.
Education has become a hugely stressful environment, with pupils self-harming, and teachers turning to anti-depressants or quitting the profession in droves. And yet the response so far has been predominantly to say that the individuals need to develop more ‘grit’ and resilience, rather than saying that perhaps something in the environment needs to change (say, less testing).
The education example serves to show us that stress is not simply a personal matter. It is an environmental, structural, and organisational matter. In the workplace, stress is a serious issue. In the UK last year, there were almost half a million reported cases of work-related stress, anxiety or depression. In Australia, 21% of people take time off work for stress-related reasons. ‘Stress leave’ is now an accepted term in most workplaces. According to the World Health Organization, stress is “the health epidemic of the 21st century.” The thought that workplaces are responding to the health epidemic of the 21st century by putting on meditation classes at lunchtime is woefully inadequate. We need systemic changes. To understand what changes are needed, in the second half of this article we’ll look at two environmental causes of stress.
Mortal Fools is running a ‘Mastering Stress’ workshop at Northern Stage in Newcastle on Wednesday 9 November. To find out more, including how to book your place, click here.
Dr Andrew Crosbie