Confronting the Perpetual Stress Machine
by Elliot Haspel
Too often when it comes to social issues, we look at a behavior and attempt to address the seemingly proximate cause. Parents aren’t spending enough time reading to their children? We’ll provide them with the needed skills. People don’t have enough money for groceries? We’ll give them food, but temporarily and with tons of strings attached. Though not entirely without merit, this outer-layer-of-the-onion approach misses the true reason so many among us struggle: a society that puts the vast majority of its members in a state of chronic financial and social stress, while simultaneously withholding meaningful supports.
We need to start vaccinating ourselves against stress, and we should start by vaccinating families with young children.
When we’re stressed out or worn out, we’re not at our best. I doubt the reader has to think far back to locate the last time acute stress led to a bad day. That may seem cliché, but the majority of us seem to have trouble extrapolating from the irritable, distractible people we become after getting a speeding ticket to what it must be like to be stressed out all. the. time.
The reasons are, of course, not a matter of choice but of neurological reality. As neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky puts it in his magisterial book, Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst:
Sustained stress has numerous adverse effects. The amygdala becomes overactive and more coupled to pathways of habitual behavior; it is easier to learn fear and harder to unlearn it. We process emotionally salient information more rapidly and automatically, but with less accuracy. Frontal function – working memory, impulse control, executive decision making, risk assessment, and task shifting – is impaired, and the frontal cortex has less control over the amygdala. And we become less empathic and prosocial.
The effects of being placed into this stress-induced “scarcity mindset,” as scholars Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir term it, can be stunningly large. For the reasons Sapolsky lays out, scarcity mindsets lead to greatly increased risk of making bad decisions. One of Mullainathan and Shafir’s studies showed that simply putting people into a make-believe state of financial stress – asking them to imagine that their car broke down and they needed to come up with two grand for repairs – reduced their performance on cognitive tests equal to as if they had missed an entire night’s sleep. Moreover, sustained stress is tightly linked to poor sleep and poor health, which drag us down both physiologically and psychologically.
All of this means that a primary goal of public policy, and of a society which wants its residents to thrive, should be a simple mantra: Avoid Chronic Stress! Yet our modern economic system, social policies, and culture are almost exquisitely designed to produce chronic stress. It’s fair to say that we live in a perpetual stress machine.
For instance, the number of hours and weeks spent working are up, while wages stagnate and the quality of healthcare and retirement plans decline. Roughly 1 in 5 Americans now work nontraditional hours, defined as outside of 6:00am to 6:00pm or on weekends. Yet an Urban Institute report notes that, “work at nonstandard hours is sometimes referred to as ‘unsocial work’ because of the conflicts with family life. The quality of family life suffers. Parents may not be available for family meals or for helping children with schoolwork, and marital stability is challenged as well.” And this 2011 data doesn’t even take into account the rise of the so-called ‘gig economy.’
Meanwhile, despite all this working, working, working, we’re living in the midst of the “Great American Debt Boom,” rarely if ever able to find real financial security. Truly, we have become what sociologist Guy Standing fashions as the “precariat” -- the precarious proletariat. Nor is this precariousness something only poor people have to contend with. Author Alissa Quart has demonstrated that while middle class folks technically have more income, they’re hardly less stressed.
Add into this slurry the rise of performative social media, degrading of our social institutions, and loss of authentic relationships, and you start to realize we’re at a startlingly dangerous inflection point in American history. We’re already seeing Millennials christened the “burnout generation,” and we’re already seeing highly troubling signals around Gen Z’s mental health. We cannot steer this battleship of ills in a new direction with mere programmatic intervention; no pre-K or job training program is going to push the behemoth. We can, however, turn it around by focusing first on families with young children -- a uniquely malleable point in time for both parent and child -- and by bringing a comprehensive policy agenda to bear. Capita’s Joe Waters and Project Evident’s Sara Peters have written that:
[Former U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick] Moynihan observed that: ‘Programs relate to a single part of the system; policy seeks to respond to the system in its entirety.’ In other words, the program approach seeks to address specific situations and to intervene to preserve or change those situations. The F-35 fighter jet is a program, not our entire defense policy. In early childhood, we too often take the F-35 (programs like child care subsidies or home-visiting) and never demand the larger more comprehensive defense policy.”
This is where stress vaccinations come in.
What does a stress vaccination look like in early childhood? It starts by financially stabilizing young families. These families, in addition to all the other economic pressures, suffer from a “lifecycle income problem” whereby they’re taking on major extra expenses of child-rearing during a non-peak earning period of life. This suggests the need for adopting major universal policies like a child allowance, zeroing out child care costs similar to how we have free K-12 public schools, paid family leave, and potentially a universal basic income. Instead of being pitched as some kind of handout, these policies should be properly understood as inoculations against chronic stress that ultimately benefit all of society.
Simultaneously, we have to pursue what Waters has called a “relational revolution,” examining everything from how we talk about freedom to our hypercompetitive iteration of late capitalism. For young families, this both means having real conversations about what ‘the good life’ entails and making space for any real conversations at all. That requires family-friendly spaces in the built environment (think plentiful, safe access to both outdoor and indoor playgrounds) and an overall ethos of seeing families with children as an integral part of community as opposed to a nuisance to be borne.
In the end, if we don’t attend to our American age of stress, we’ll remain on track for social and economic dissolution, a dismal future made yet darker by the prospect of being ill-prepared to fight the climate crisis. Yet, despite these trendlines, I remain girded in hope. Because we are nothing if not a resilient people, and if we can attack the true enemy -- systems that impose chronic stress -- we can allow our better angels to emerge, and find our way back to the light.
Elliot Haspel is a former elementary school teacher and early childhood policy analyst who writes about early childhood and K-12 education policy. He holds an M.Ed. in Education Policy from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. Elliot’s work has been featured on The Washington Post, The New Republic, Romper, The 74 Million, and other sites. He resides in Richmond, VA with his wife and two young daughters. Elliot’s book, “Crawling Behind: America’s Childcare Crisis and How to Fix It,” will be published this November.
Elliot can be reached at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter at @ehaspel.