Dr. Orma contributed to a recently published book entitled, “Your Mental Health Questions Answered,” by J. Lucy Boyd, RN, BSN. The book is a valuable resource for consumers and poses questions to psychologists and psychiatrists on topics of interest in mental health. Dr. Orma answers two questions in the book about stress, one of his areas of specialty. Here’s the first question from the book that Dr. Orma addresses. The second question will be featured in an upcoming post.
“Are we less able to cope with stress than our ancestors, and, if so, why? Our ancestors coped with having large numbers of children, horrible diseases that wiped out both children and adults, and family separations without the ability to readily communicate. It seems that we have it relatively easy compared to them.”
Dr. Orma’s Response: Those who live in the industrialized countries of today (i.e. the United States, Europe and Asia) have it enormously easier than our ancestors did in terms of how demanding and stressful life is. This is true for one major reason: the more you go back in time, the less scientific and technological advancement there was.
Before the industrial revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, life was extremely brutal and short. Many people don’t realize how hard life was before the invention of all of our modern conveniences. There was no modern plumbing, hot water, electricity, air conditioning, heating, computers, cars, cell phones, airplanes, modern medicine, grocery stores, and a million other products and services that make our lives so much more comfortable and easier than our ancestors’. Life before all of these wonderful conveniences was filled with drudgery, famine, pestilence, and filth, with an average life expectancy of about 40 or less–half of the current average life expectancy of nearly 80 in the industrialized world.
It was certainly more stressful to have to hunt for your breakfast in the wilderness with a spear than driving in a heated Toyota to Starbuck’s. In order for people to survive in the past, they had to be more resilient and rugged, otherwise they would quickly die (which many did).
However, how stressful something is and how well one copes with that stress are two separate issues. It doesn’t necessarily follow that the more stress someone is under, the better coping skills they will possess. The reason for this is that the ability to cope with stress is based on the internal abilities of a person, not on the external demands of the period the person lives in.
So, are we less able to cope than our ancestors? This is an extremely difficult question to answer for several reasons. To begin with, we have no reliable way of assessing how well people of today cope with stress compared to their ancestors. The main reason is that there is no data to compare the coping abilities of someone living today with someone living a hundred or more years ago. Currently, we have ways of assessing people’s coping ability, and have instruments that measure stress levels. However, we didn’t have these measures a hundred or more years ago; thus, all we can do is speculate about the coping abilities of different generations of people.
Another difficulty in answering this question is that the ability to cope with stress is individual, so you can’t really make a blanket statement about how well whole generations of people comparably cope or coped with stress. Whether past or present, some people cope very well with stress and others don’t. This is because some people have acquired particular skills that allow them to manage and minimize stress, while others haven’t learned these skills or were never motivated enough to learn them. This is true whether you are living today or five hundred years ago. Some examples of coping skills of today would be time management skills, organization skills, communication and assertiveness skills, and many more. Several hundred years ago, different coping skills might have been more important, such as being able to cope with a significantly more precarious and physically demanding lifestyle (although this is also true for most people today in the non-industrialized countries).
In addition, another element that makes comparing coping abilities between generations challenging is that the external conditions of life are so different now as compared with our ancestors. It’s like comparing apples and oranges. Life for our ancestors was significantly more stressful because of the excruciating physical realities of life back then. The further you go back in time, the more physically demanding, and inherently stressful, life was.
But, even though life was much more stressful for our ancestors, it is impossible to assess whether they coped better with their brutal living conditions than we currently cope with our significantly less stressful lives, because the skills required to cope with stress in each generation are so different.
So who coped or copes better—our ancestors or us? Did the caveman who was able to kill large prey, sleep on a rock, make his own tools, and survive to age 26 cope better than a modern woman who is able to successfully raise three kids, manage a full-time career, survive breast cancer, and live to age 80? How do you compare the two?
What one can definitely say is that people living in today’s modern, industrialized societies have a much better chance of survival and enjoyment of life than our ancestors did, even with less ability to cope. Why? Because we have amazing products and services that make coping much easier. When we’re hot, we can turn on the air conditioning. When we’re hungry, we can drive to the nearest convenience store. When we’re sick, we can get a shot and be treated with the most advanced modern medicine. Even if you are poor today in an industrialized society, you live better than royalty did a few hundred years ago.
I think the most important idea to take from this is that whatever age you live in, to survive and thrive in life, it is vital to learn and utilize the specific coping skills that will allow you to successfully manage whatever life throws at you, whether a saber-toothed tiger or a traffic jam on your work commute.
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Dr. Steve Orma is a San Francisco-based licensed CBT clinical psychologist, recognized mental health expert, and specialist in the treatment of anxiety, stress, and insomnia.
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