Friday, September 7, 2018

Stress, Social Media, and How Finding Common Ground Would Make Us Healthier

Stress is the leading cause of health problems in the United States.  It is to us what kryptonite is to Superman, and the closer we are to it and the longer we are around it, the further it weakens us.  Though our bodies are capable of super-heroics, healing from all sorts of conditions, illnesses, and injuries (from the simple cut to the broken bone to the so-termed incurable disease process), stress at varying speeds strips us of our innate power, consequently rendering us decreasingly resilient in the fight to maintain sound health.     

Accordingly, we have to be more mindful of how to manage stress, for just as Superman can in the comics determine the presence of his Achilles heel by its bright green glow, we must develop a broader understanding of the various sources that create stress in our lives so that they may be promptly identified and dealt with.  For instance, one of the common themes among many stressors is negativity, but recognize that negative people or things do not always have to figuratively clobber you over the head every day to have a consistently detrimental impact on your health; worrying about monthly bills creates comparable internal strife as the daily interactions with an overbearing boss, exemplifying that subtler negatives build momentum against the positives all the same as the obvious ones in the figurative arms race for control over your body and mind.

The above having been stated, another source of stress that ought to be considered is the mounting number of polarizing issues in our world and, more specifically, both how we react to them and how often we are exposed to the rhetoric surrounding them.  For some of us, the on-going debates about healthcare, gun reform, human rights, etc. sit at the forefront of our everyday lives, while for others they occupy smaller spaces in our psyche, but very few can ignore the fact that there are a lot of things in need of our collective attention so that the problems we presently face can get resolved.  Our reactions to the politics, be they subtle or overt, are in fact happening, and we would be wise to consider also how much healthier we could be – via decreasing stress – if the resolutions to said issues did not feel so distant, as they are often at least perceived to be. 

Averting attention away from headline news has been getting harder for the last century and, peaking with our modern cultural climate of constant connectivity, it is more challenging now than ever before to escape the noise about society’s ills; and the noise gets ever louder, the spoken or written verbiage highly contentious, by and large.  It is the age of the all-or-nothing argument, and the more exposure we have to the barrage of endless bickering, the angrier we become and the higher our stress levels reach; it is not healthy.  Therefore, it is in our best interest to try to improve. 

One aspect of the digital age, which allows us to communicate with someone from a different background or even continent in seconds through a social media post, that we are still figuring out is how to assimilate the opinions and values of people that extend beyond our typical bubble, in which we become accustomed to similarly held belief systems and ways of life.  Psychologically, the research is pretty clear: we are predisposed to be very empathetic to family and friends, but the greater distance between us and our social networks, the lesser the tendency to be compassionate.  Social media has simultaneously disconnected us somewhat from our tribal disposition, if you will, and connected us to a much wider variety of different belief systems and ways of life; it has changed the world, and we are capable of changing with it. 

Mark Twain once said, “It ain't what you don't know that gets you in trouble [but what] you know for sure that just ain't so.”  Unfortunately, we have brought with the globalizing force of social media our long-held propensity to skew our perception toward all things unknown into patterns that fit an already established sociologic narrative, an inclination otherwise known as confirmation bias; in other words, we want new information to be consistent with what we already believe.  Social media expanded the scope of our potential interactions and, to its credit amongst its many controversies, it has given us an opportunity to break the bad habit of confirmation bias by observing the personal journeys of all sorts of people.  We have not yet recognized the potential of that opportunity and, so long as we remain in detrimental patterns, we will miss the chance to learn about and process different knowledge-bases and perspectives. 

American healthcare is still statistically the worst in the industrialized world, school shootings are only escalating in volume, we remain overly judgmental to downright cruel toward people who are different; and the only way to change any of those things is to tone down the destructive arguing and get back to discussions that more readily lead to constructive actions and education.  If we improve our discourse, then we make it easier to find common ground and quicken the pace toward making changes that are not so divisive.   

Better quality communication requires a general faith that respective parties within the conversational roundtable have something valuable to contribute, an open-mindedness to ideas and viewpoints not necessarily shared by all.  Humans have been fighting each other near-constantly for thousands of years about the same basic things; shall we attempt an alternate strategy, one that tears down the black and white thinking that has plagued us for generations and that frequently makes it feel as though we are stuck in sociological quicksand?  If faith – in the divine, in ourselves, in the concept that we deserve to be happy, etc. - is one of the most powerful agents to combat stress, then more heavily investing our faith in other people would prove a valuable asset in creating the change that we need; and that extends to happiness and, subsequently, our overall well-being (health). 

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