The following is from chapter 7 in Michael LeGault’s book Think.
I’m Too Busy…
The Myth of “Stress” and “Information Overload”
“The truth is cruel, but it can be loved, And it makes free those who have loved it.”-George Santayana
Imagine standing on the edge of a nickel and looking down 500 feet between your legs. Free climbing (without the aid of ropes) is an activity that demands the marriage of technical skill, clear headed thinking, and the utmost acceptance of responsibility for your own actions. Take away one of these and the whole enterprise, not to mention your life, is jeopardized.
Fortunately, Most of us do not have to stand on the edge of a nickel a few hundred feet above hard rock, but we all have our daily mountain to climb- a difficult coworker or boss, multiple demands on our time, or money or marital problems. The rise of “stress” or rather symptoms of stress, in contemporary society is a sign not only that more people are in difficult situations, but tellingly, that they are unable to respond or to think their way out of these situations. It is a sign, ultimately, that more people are having trouble taking charge of their lives. Today, stress and its co-conspirator, so-called information overload, are two major factors in the weakening of mental energy needed to do creative, technical work and solve everyday problems. It is why some people say they are in perpetual “crisis mode” and have the feeling that their lives are “out of control.” It is why some are falling off the side of their mountain.
But how real is stress? There are obviously traumatic events that can introduce severe stress into people’s lives. But the meaning of stress, a word once applied to extreme, relatively rare-situations, has been inflated to apply to just about everything that happens. Indeed, stress, say some experts, is largely a matter of perception an attitude. The word “stress,” it turns out, generally has no more medical meaning than the phrase “life is not perfect.” It is a word meant to convey a highly subjective psychological condition, which is in turn meant to lift the burden of responsibility for the quality of our thinking and decisions from our shoulders. Blaming stress would be signifying consignment of a person’s mood and behavior to mysterious forces beyond his or her control.
In Who’s in Charge? Attacking the Stress Myth, Dr. Scott Sheperd argues that stress is the most overused and misused word in the English language, suggesting a physical condition, a situation, even a way of living, as in “she lives a stressful lifestyle.” He states, “The word stress now seems to stand for all kinds of things. Stress has gone from a physiological process, during which certain hormones are released into the body, to some vague, malevolent force running rampant in life. In fact, stress now means so many different things, I don’t think it means anything at all. And yet we blame stress for most of our problems.
Despite its dubious meaning, or perhaps because of it, “stress” gets prolific coverage in the media. Stress, and the promise of relief from it, has become a topic of such familiarity. Stress can apparently manifest itself in specific disorders such as chronic anxiety, chronic fatigue syndrome, and depression. Not only can just about any event or circumstance induce stress, unrelieved stress has been fingered as the cause of up to half of all diseases! Stress is also having a debilitating effect on Americans’ critical thinking, creativity, and work performance.
While stress is a relatively new phenomenon, it doesn’t appear to be a passing fad. Yet before 1950, stress as we know it today essentially didn’t exist. The word “stress” itself, which, as one early critic noted, “in addition to being itself, was also the cause of itself, and the result of itself.”
STRESS IS A SYMPTOM OF A PROBLEM, NOT THE CAUSE
Stress is explained as an automatic response acquired by humans through evolution to help us survive immediate physical threats to our life. In these situations, we don’t have time to think, and pausing to analyze might spell a permanent, quick end to the person’s analytical skills. Today, however, stress is almost exclusively associated with a response produced by perceived psychological threats or unpleasant social or professional circumstances- overwork, perceived personal shortcomings, family dynamics. Stress, in this sense, has hardly anything to do with a strong physiological reaction of the body and is more comparable to a highly subjective state of mind.
Stress has become a self-propagating idea. The stress epidemic is having a profound effect on the ability of people to think and reason. The word and concept of stress inclines people to mash over and rant, rather than analyze and pinpoint the problem. With a massive amount of stress in society, the goal becomes to “manage stress,” which reinforces the belief that the power of life lies in events, not people.
We have a society where many, if not most people do not accept responsibility for their own lives. I am not just speaking of those who want to blame their parents or society because they turned to a life of crime. I am referring to those who blame everyone and everything for the way they feel and behave in life.
There is no doubt that unalleviated psychological stress can cause problems. It has been shown that long-term stress, or rather the failure to address or improve undesirable circumstances, can cloud a person’s judgment and thinking. “I am not saying there is no stress if we define stress as certain physiological reactions within the body,” says Sheperd. “The problem is, now stress is everything. In reality there really isn’t stress, there are only good situations and bad situations. People that think in certain ways get through the bad situations better. In an article published in the Economist, Howard Goldman of the University of Maryland School of Medicine expresses even less sympathy, suggesting much of stress is perception: “Every generation thinks it’s more stressed out and souped up than the rest.”
The common belief is that stress is a thoroughly contemporary disease, brought on by more demanding workloads, a changing economy, and other social factors. Yet, the relationship between stress and workload appears somewhat fuzzy. Most people find not working much more stressful than working long hours. As Dr Sidney Walker observes in his book A Dose of Sanity, in a chapter titled The Stress Myth, “A reasonable amount of stress is good for you. In fact, lack of stress may be more harmful to physical and mental health than high stress levels.”
American psychologist and philosopher Rollo May states his belief that anxiety and stress should not be treated as symptoms to be removed, but embraced as a necessary stimulus for all productive work. May elaborates, “I think anxiety is associated with creativity. When you’re in a situation of anxiety, you can of course run away from it, and that’s certainly not very constructive… What anxiety means is it’s as though the world is knocking at your door, and you need to create, you need to make something, you need to do something.”
Human Free Will: Understanding the difference between “Need” and “Want.”
If you see yourself as having to do what you are doing, you will find no answers to make it better because you won’t even look for them. You will be living like a victim. Stress need not have a totally rational explanation. But you can bet on “stress,” that is, problems, difficult situations. It is one of life’s certainties. But we’ve somehow become too fragile and sensitive. The attitude that lets the smallest, most trivial incidents induce anger, frustration, or bitterness is a form of psychic surrender that is sapping the intellectual and creative vigor from the lives of many people. The challenge is to liberate ourselves from this mass hypnosis and reclaim our curiosity, our thirst for knowledge, as opposed to pure emotion, and the full powers of our critical thinking-the best stress-buster there is.
The tension created by information proliferation seems to arise from a basic conflict: our need for more, better information in our jobs and life on the one hand, versus our need to do our job, have a life, and get on with things. The knowledge economy is making information more, not less crucial, and two, there is a corresponding need to generate this knowledge faster, lest a competitor beat them to the punch. Unlike generic “stress” arising from mostly subjective demands of everyday life or work, information overload is concrete and measurable and so, it would appear, is the stress arising from it.
The world is now churning out information at a pace that has allowed human beings to produce more new information in the last 30 years than in the previous 5000 years. The information explosion has unleashed a number of unique forces, says Kevin Miller in Surviving Information Overload. One with the most alarming implications for knowledge and thinking is that more information is badly presented or incomprehensible. To find the few precious nuggets of gold one must wade through a mountain of garbage. While the amount of information has been rising in a steep, exponential fashion, the amount of usable or quality information has been rising only marginally, at a plodding linear rate. In this sense at least, information overload is a myth. People are not after just information but good information, and this remains as elusive as ever, tucked away in a library, a filing cabinet, or an expert’s head.
Another insidious effect of information overload, closely related to quality dilution, is information confusion. As outlined in David Shenk’s book Data Smog, people now have at their fingertips an oversupply of statistics, expert opinion, and widely circulated but simplified stories with which to interpret the world. Shenks says, “Since nearly any argument imaginable can now be supported with an impressive data set, the big winner is… argumentation itself. Journalist Michael Kinsley calls this “stat wars.” Factionalism gets a big boost from volleys of data, while dialogue and consensus- the marrow of democracy- run thinner and thinner.
Information is not knowledge
The information explosion is not leading to better critical and creative thinking: it is largely being used to sprout off, preach, or confirm existing biases and flawed thinking.
A third way information overload adversely affects critical thinking is by acting to create shorter and shorter attention span and to short-circuit thinking before it can get started. “The world attacks us with a constant assault of stimulation and distraction, assigns us more tasks than a regiment of wizards could ever finish, and forces us to multi-task,” says Melinda Davis in The Culture of Desire.
But perhaps the most pernicious side effect of information overload is a sanctioning of the attitude that “ignorance is bliss.” Massive filtering, or in some cases complete shutting down information inflow, is considered either a coping skill or a liberating, personal statement. People talk about the anxiety of receiving a book over two hundred pages long, even as most watch nearly three hours of television every night. Yet, in reality, once a person begins practicing the fine art of extreme filtering, there is no anxiety or stress. The world is not knocking. There is only the serenity of self seeking the self.
The myth is not that there is too much information- there is. The myth is that there is too much good information; that information, good or not, has somehow become hazardous to one’s health. Good information is still a rarity, and rarer still is the intellect that can polish it and turn it into knowledge. In Brain Dancing, Patrick Magee writes,
“The most powerful information is MetaInformation- information that improves the process we use to interact with information.”
At least part of the solution to reducing the tension created by information and modern life lies with accepting personal responsibility for one’s actions and decisions. One of the main unifying themes of Western philosophy over the last two thousand years has been man’s free will; his ability to use reason to understand his world and shape his destiny.
Information and stress are not going to diminish. So the question becomes, do we let stress and information shape our response to the world, or do we use free will and critical thinking to make good decisions in response to inevitable stress and the influx of new information?
Anger, frustration, stress, and anxiety are themselves a form of information. They are the emotional precedent for critical and creative thinking. One of the main problems in contemporary society is that many people mistake the emotion for the thought. Difficulties, sensation, emotion, information- they’re the beginning of the heroic journey of the life of the mind, not it’s end. It is a journey that can and should lead to the top of a mountain of our choosing.