Is Stress Responsible for Economic and Political Instability in the US?

By Mary Wingo, PhD, who received her doctorate in physiology from the University of North Texas.

It is no surprise that Americans are some very stressed out people. It may be surprising to know just how fragile the our economic and political systems have been made by exposure to preventable stress. I wanted to highlight some disturbing numbers detailing the true costs of stress.

Let’s start with mental illness, which is intimately tied to stress. In 2011, the World Health Organization issued a report estimating the global cost of mental illness for 2010 at nearly $2.5 trillion, with a projected increase to over $6 trillion by 2030.(1)

However, the true costs of dealing with unresolved trauma may be far higher, as cost from childhood abuse and neglect are estimated at over $585 billion a year in the US.(2)  Another government study puts the price tag at $124 billion a year.(3) Substance addiction, often the result of a person’s attempt to self soothe because of exposure to stressful events, whether chronic or episodic, is out of control in the US. It is estimated that the cost for substance abuse is about $700 billion per year.(4)

Comparing data from 1900 to the year 2010 reveals that the two most common causes of death, heart disease and cancer have increased astonishingly, by 147% and 289%, respectively.(5) Furthermore, the occurrence of type II diabetes, which is essentially a disease resulting from the chronic chemical stress of our bodies, has increased by an astonishing 770% from 1958 to 2013.(6)

Though exact and comprehensive costs are difficult to assess, a 2001 estimate put the cost of just workplace stress alone at $300 billion year for the US.(7) In the EE-15 countries (Europe), this estimate ranges from 185 to 289 billion euros. In 2014-15, stress accounted for 43% of all sick days lost in the UK.(8) It cannot be disputed therefore that unmitigated stress results in a massive drain on GDP for Western economies.(9)

20160525095328These numbers probably do not fully account for the nearly incomprehensible costs of preventable stress related heart or auto-immune disease, diabetes, or even cancer. Or even the “real” cost of military-related PTSD.

These numbers are just scratching the surface, as much of these expenditures listed above come from just the US and EU, which accounts for only 750 million people out of about 7 billion. The losses due to the effects of preventable stress are in the trillions every year, perhaps even in the multiple of trillions. To keep things in perspective, the world wide gross domestic product was about 77 trillion dollars as of 2014.(10) It is an easy stretch to the imagination that if we did some careful bean counting, the world wide cost of preventable stress might just eclipse 10% (or much more) of world wide gross domestic product. This figure is mind boggling and needs to be analyzed very closely for the specific solutions.

The disease and death rates due to stress-related illness is very disturbing. Emotional stress contributes greatly to the six leading causes of death in the US. These are cancer, coronary heart disease, accidental injuries, respiratory disorders, cirrhosis of the liver and suicide, respectively.(11)

The developed world, especially the United States, consumes alarming amounts of prescription drugs, with almost 50% of the population taking one or more drugs within the previous 30 days.(12)

Furthermore, depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, and contributes greatly to the global disease burden.(13) Can we afford for so many people to be sick from or incapacitated from stress?

But what is stress? We know when we feel it, but what is it? In a nutshell, stress is the rate of adjustment you, as a human being, have to go through in order to adapt to your current environment. Notice we have two components of the stress response—the person (or organism)—and the environment. We do have much personal control over stress, but ultimately we are at the mercy of our environment and her laws of nature, unless we do something clever to change it. For instance, a person can only do only so much mindfulness meditation for effective stress control in Fukushima as one’s DNA is ripped apart or war-torn Iraq, where one’s clean water infrastructure is destroyed. Yes stress includes psychological factors, but it is so much more. It also includes chemical and physical factors.

So we understand that stress is not just some abstract construct, is the way we adapt. It is how humans can adjust themselves to thrive in a particular environment, and with it comes costs. We need our biological stress mechanisms to thrive and successfully adapt in life. We would have hardly survived the stress of being born without our stress response. However, like many things in nature, there are flip-sides as well, like the destruction of our collective resistance to thwart malfeasance.

You might ask what exactly causes stress. In the modernized world, many decades of research has told us it comes down to 5 factors:

  1. Loss of working memory ability
  2. Loss of social equality
  3. Loss of social capital
  4. Depletion of friendly bacteria populations (biome)
  5. Chemical exposure, both voluntary and involuntary

I will cover these individual factors in future writings, or you can read about it in my book.

Ultimately, this begs the question if we can afford, for either the long or short term the social, political costs of preventable human stress.

That we have covered the very basics, let us dive into the implications of carrying these enormous burdens in our communities world wide. Maybe, just maybe, we were unable to resist tyranny because we were so stressed. For instance, if your life requires incessant multitasking, you will fatigue your greatest problem solving stress reducing machine you have, your frontal cortex, the part of the brain behind your eyes and forehead. In fact, a properly functioning frontal lobe unencumbered by too much planning and thinking, depression, various psychoactive drugs, or stress of high blood sugar due to diabetes is our most treasured stress-mitigating asset and problem solving apparatus. And this is just one type of many stressors in present in modernized society.

With so many people needing medication to cope with life in the US, we must ask if we are capable of resisting the corruption infecting our society. Do we actually have the energy to complete effective acts of disobedience necessary to save democracy? Has embracing the modern work patterns, the chaotic schedules, the lack of control and social connections, the burden of extreme materialism and the debt that came with it, the gadget use, the diet, the medications, and the other endless addictions and neuroses that had accompanied the rise of the modern world has stressed our body’s and minds to the extent that we are unable to put up a fight? Perhaps, this is how our societies declines, not with a bang, but the whimpering to the sound of reality TV life.

I propose that we take immediate and drastic action to radically access the social and economic costs that the stresses of modern life have bestowed upon us. I urge all communities to assess all form of preventable stress and create action plans—for the future of the species—to mitigate it. The effects of preventable humans stress has reach the point of destabilizing entire communities and countries with countless lives lost every year and trillions of dollars squandered. We have reach as tipping point, and we can no long afford to ignore this issue. The corrupt world leaders were not the only ones that got us into this severe economic crisis, it is the fact we were too stressed ourselves—not lazy, to collectively put up a good defense and resist the destruction. We are drowning in the horrific stress of modern society. We have no idea what has hit us.

1.Insel, Thomas. “Director’s Blog: The Global Cost of Mental Illness.” NIMH RSS. 28 Sept. 2011. http://www.nimh.nih.gov/about/director/2011/the-global-cost-of-mental-illness.shtml

2. Fang, Xiangming, Derek S. Brown, Curtis Florence, and James A. Mercy. “The Economic Burden of Child Maltreatment in the United States And Implications for Prevention.” Child Abuse & Neglect. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Vol 36:2, Feb 2012:156–165

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0145213411003140

3. “Child Abuse and Neglect Cost the United States $124 Billion.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 Feb. 2012.

http://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2012/p0201_child_abuse.html

4. “Trends & Statistics.” Trends & Statistics. 20 Aug. 2015.

http://www.drugabuse.gov/related-topics/trends-statistics

5. Jones, David S., Scott H. Podolsky, and Jeremy A. Greene. “The Burden of Disease and the Changing Task of Medicine —NEJM.” New England Journal of Medicine. 21 June 2012.

http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp1113569

6. “Long-Term Diabetes.” Diabetes 2.6 (1953): 500-01. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Oct. 2014/. <http://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/statistics/slides/long_term_trends.pdf

7. Brun, John Pierre. “Work Related Stress: Scientific evidence base of risk factors, prevention and costs.” http://www.who.int/occupational_health/topics/brunpres0307.pdf

8. “Work related Stress, Anxiety and Depression Statistics in Great Britain 2015.” http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/causdis/stress/stress.pdf

9. Goh, Joel, Pfeffer J, and Zenios SA. “The Relationship Between Workplace Stressors and Mortality and Health Costs in the United States.” Management Science: INFORMS. Management

Science, n.d. Web. Mar. 2015.

http://www.aepsal.com/wpcontent/uploads/2015/03/EstresEnUSA.pdf

10. World Economy.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_economy

11. Salleh, Mohd. Razali. “Life Event, Stress and Illness.” The Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences : MJMS. PenerbitUniversiti Sains Malaysia, Oct. 2008.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3341916/

12 “Healthy, United States, 2014.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2014. <http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hus/hus14.pdf#085

13. “Depression Fact Sheet.”

http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs369/en/

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  • kimyo

    dr malcolm kendrick (author of the fantastic ‘great cholesterol con’) has some very informative writings on stress, and how it is a true predictor of coronary disease (as opposed to cholesterol levels, which are meaningless – 50% of those who die from coronary disease have high cholesterol, sure. but 50% do not.)

    What causes heart disease part XI

    (apologies if too off-topic)