As I sit at my desk writing about stress, I can feel some tension stirring in my body. Outside my home office where I write, construction workers are noisily building a new house. Work will go on next door for a few more months. No doubt I’ll feel the nuisance of the noise at times, but I don’t really expect to feel much tension or stress. For one thing, stress is largely related to unresolved negative emotions—and I’m happy to see this lovely new house being built. Moreover, if the noise gets too loud I can head off to the nearby town library and park myself in one of its secluded corners.
Stress is synonymous with suffering. It’s on a par with tension and anxiety. We experience stress when we add the tonnage of our unresolved emotional issues on to the back of normal everyday challenges.
Yet people are generally determined to ignore the inner causes of stress. They want to blame stress on external factors. In its latest annual survey on stress in America, the American Psychological Association says that money, work, and the economy continue to be the most frequently cited causes of stress.
Significant sources of stress include money (75 percent), work (70 percent), the economy (67 percent), relationships (58 percent), family responsibilities (57 percent), family health problems (53 percent), personal health concerns (53 percent), job stability (49 percent), housing costs (49 percent) and personal safety (32 percent).
The “sources of stress” cited here trigger or precipitate our stress, but they don’t necessarily directly cause it. There’s a fine distinction to consider. Stress factors are present in our environment, of course. It’s normal to feel some anxiety and fear when, for instance, we’re unemployed and having money, health, or relationship problems. Still, for psychological reasons that tend to go undetected, we’re likely to be producing a lot more stress than is necessary. People with good health and good jobs can still experience a lot of stress.
Our world can certainly be intense and feel stressful. We’re probably dealing with new stress factors such as the ever-increasing assault of noise. Yet we get a respite, too, because we don’t live in a violent, lawless society as many of our ancestors did, and modern medicine provides us more security from illness or accident. When it comes to stress, what matters most is not the actual conditions of our life but how we experience our life and our own self. One person experiences anguish and paralysis from the same source that motivates another. Our problem with stress has to be considered in the context of our own personal psychology. Insight into our own issues can greatly relieve our stress.
Unfortunately, the APA fails to offer any such psychological insight in annual survey of randomly chosen U.S. residents. Instead of psychological knowledge, the report offers only statistics and advice. It clumps the survey participants into statistical groupings, offering only a kind of poll of what these people think is causing their stress. These participants reflect the general population, which means they are—sad but true—psychologically naïve. For the most part, they don’t understand at a deeper level how they produce their own suffering. Their common sense, operating superficially, identifies external factors as the source of stress. They tend not to see the unconscious dynamics in their psyche that contribute to the problem.
Nonetheless, the APA, operating like a polling company, publishes findings that have only marginal value. The report makes the obvious point that stress in America is a serious cause for concern. It rightfully warns that stress has the potential to become the country’s next public health crisis, contributing significantly to heart disease, depression, and obesity. Its main recommendation calls for better access to behavioral health care services. However, it says nothing about how much of our stress is produced by way of inner conflict in our psyche.
What’s needed is insight into why stress sufferers decline to follow a healthier lifestyle. The APA survey mentions that those participants who say they are depressed (27 percent) and those who are obese (28 percent) are more likely than the general public (21 percent) to say they aren’t doing enough to manage their stress. The survey also finds that, on a scale of 1 to 10, people living with depression (6.3 on the scale) or obesity (6.0) report significantly higher average stress levels than the rest of the population (5.2). These are interesting findings, yet the APA offers no analysis of them.
These sufferers could benefit greatly from a deeper understanding of their plight. People who are obese and who suffer with chronic depression are likely to be more neurotic or dysfunctional than the general public. Individuals who are more dysfunctional are likely to be inwardly conflicted and subject to more stress. The nature of this dysfunction can be complicated and can vary considerably from person to person. Still, obese and depressed people have one common ingredient in (or aspect of) their psyche that’s important to understand.
These individuals are deficient in inner strength. They may display assertive or aggressive traits in their everyday behavior, but they’re inwardly passive, lacking in ability to self-regulate (the obese) and in ability to protect themselves on an inner level from their harsh inner critic (the depressed). (See “Obesity and the Dopamine Fallacy” and “The Hidden Cause of Clinical Depression”.)
As the APA survey indicates, the obese and the depressed are less successful than others in following a healthier lifestyle. That’s because their inner passivity is a greater handicap for them. This passivity determines how, for much of the time, they experience themselves. They come to know themselves (or to identify with themselves) through inner passivity which is the feeling of being at the mercy of fate rather than being the creator of one’s destiny.
A deficiency of inner strength applies, in various ways, to most of us. Stress is frequently produced, for instance, by a busy mind that, lacking self-regulation, churns away all day with useless speculations and considerations. A deficiency of inner strength can be overcome by acquiring self-knowledge, particularly how we can extend our consciousness into our psyche to claim inner authority and power. We learn how our psyche works. We study the dynamics of the major inner conflict in our psyche, the clash between inner aggression and inner passivity. We see how our self, the seat of our inner strength, develops and emerges as this major inner conflict is recognized and resolved.
It’s quite logical that inner weakness would cause stress. Inner weakness produces the feeling, experienced subliminally in various degrees, that we can’t care for ourselves, protect ourselves, support ourselves, and value ourselves. What could be more stressful than all this impotence and self-doubt? And what could be more invigorating and reassuring than the pleasure of breaking free from the bondage of inner conflict?