On & Off Campus Blog

Stopping stress as a cultural norm
Stopping stress as a cultural norm
By Lindsay B. Jernigan, Ph.D. ‘91


We live in a culture that normalizes, even pedestalizes, stress. Many of us are chronically busy, tired, and stretched too thin, and often we see this is a mark of our importance. We are constantly hustling to meet expectations and deadlines, without feeling we have the option to say no--often without even stopping to notice we might want to say no. We are toiling away to earn respect, money, As, promotions, admissions, and a seat at the table. Expectations seem to get higher and higher as we find new ways to maximize our time and productivity.

The toiling has tipped into dangerous territory. Stress has become the cultural norm. Peace, mindfulness, balance, gratitude... these are things we now have to "practice" and "carve out time for." Remember when Covid hit and many people started noticing that, despite the horror of the pandemic, it felt healthy to slow down? The experience even took on a name, "The Great Pause," and for those lucky enough to experience it, it felt like a breath of fresh air. People vowed to hold on to the lesson.

But as life ramps back up and people have returned to juggling full-time home and work obligations, the lessons from the pause are quietly receding. Stress culture is sneaky. The pause caught our attention, but the re-escalation of stress does not. It is so culturally normative that it goes unnoticed, even as we suffer the consequences.

I worry that we, as a culture, have normalized stress so much that we are blind to the extreme toll it is taking on our health, our relationships, and our children who are being indoctrinated more deeply into stress culture with every passing day. I worry about our suffering as a group and individually. And I worry that we locate the "problem" internally rather than externally; we are prone to labeling and treating the individual who is suffering the consequences of stress culture, rather than labeling and treating the stress culture, itself.

While we are each responsible for establishing our own values and making our own lifestyle choices, I also believe the systems we operate in bear a responsibility to reject stress culture, to value health and wellness, and to create subcultures where individuals are truly supported to do the same. This does not mean suddenly ignoring organizational fiscal and professional goals or individual academic ambitions; it means breaking down the false story that success and wellness are dichotomous.

It is not true that our students learn, excel, and thrive more in the face of intensive expectations. Thriving happens in a natural state of flow inside each of our children that they can only access when they have the space to feel and feed their own curiosities, when they are encouraged to take risks despite possible (or probable) failure, and when they can balance the need to meet external demands with their inherent need for rest, recreation, and rejuvenation. For many of us, flow is elusive in the face of stress culture. Instead, we are being driven, adults and children alike, into anxiety, depression, isolation, and a crisis of hope and purpose.

As a psychologist in private practice, I am seeing firsthand that it is not enough to treat each individual who is suffering in stress culture. We need broader brushstrokes and more systemic change. I am exploring new ways to invite businesses, organizations, and institutions into the conversation to create an anti-stress culture movement.

This is not quick work, and in the meantime, we need to take good care of ourselves. Psychologists call the capacity to maintain wellness in face of hardship "resilience." In the face of stress culture, we all need to foster resilience these days. Luckily there are ways to boost resilience to protect mental, emotional, and physical well-being. You can learn how to promote emotional flow; distinguish sadness from depression and worry from anxiety; discover tools to self-address depression, anxiety, and insomnia; and learn ways to boost your mood, optimism, and sense of connection.

BB&N community members can learn more about Jernigan's work and her resilience e-course, and take advantage of a 20% discount with the code BBN.