‘Stress, depression and anxiety accounted for 15.2 million lost days last year – up from 11.8 million in 2010’ Source: Office for National Statistics 2014
‘UK needs four-day week to combat stress’ says top doctor Professor John Ashton, President of the UK Faculty of Public Health, Source: Guardian newspaper 1st July 2014
‘Stress causes damage to the heart study finds’ Source: NHS News 2014
‘A study, involving 29 doctors working on intensive care wards, found that stress causes the body to produce an excess of white blood cells, which can cause inflammation of the arteries.’ Source: Times newspaper June 2014
Countering the effects of stress could take a website in itself and more. It is an area that we all need to improve upon and yet so many of us find it excruciatingly hard – myself included. Looking back to our traditional societies (up to relatively recently) as well as contemporary societies living within their own traditional framework throws up some interesting lessons on stress and highlights the need for communal structures of support in order to prevent – or at least mitigate – the negative effects of modern living.
In many ways this issue is the most important area for us both practically and philosophically. Learning how to just ‘be’ – to momentarily divorce ourselves from sometimes overwhelming feelings of pressure, stress or sadness – is one of the hardest tasks of all and as with all such subjects, there is no quick fix. For some it is the joy found in a practical activity that focuses the mind beyond the self and towards a form of union with the the Divine. For some it is listening to music, for others it is the feel of soil between their fingers. The religious and spiritual aspect of our existence, together with the social bonds of our family – our ‘tribe’ – and the feeling of our place within the world in relation to both our ancestors and future descendants cannot be over-estimated. We are spiritual, tribal, ancestral beings and yet the increasing atomisation that we experience in the modern world can only accelerate feelings of stress and negativity.
Theology and philosophy has much to teach us regarding being and happiness. Looking at traditional societies may also help us to reflect on some very basic things that we require as human beings for our practical and spiritual well-being.
NOBLE ANCESTORS AND MODERN SELVES
How the Light Gets, Hay on Wye, 2014
Panel: Bruce Parry: BBC Documentary Film Maker, Daniel Everett: Anthropologist, Sarah Chan: Bioethicist, Janet Radcliffe-Richards: Oxford Philosopher, Chair: Sean Curran: BBC
I have written in detail about this amazing discussion which we happened upon purely by chance here. For the purposes of our current topic, the panel discussed some of the following features of hunter gatherer tribes:
- Strong communal and spiritual bonds
- Individual autonomy within an overall group structure
- A sense of equality
- Consensual decision-making
- Social responsibility
- Shared child-rearing within the small group (and looking after the elderly)
- Emotions that are often shared and expressed with the group
- Respect for neighbours and fellow people
- Very little addiction
- Good humour – joking, good-natured teasing, and laughter
- DE: the tribe he lived with did not show any desire to acquire technology but when other tribes have, it has caused unhappiness
- BP: exposure to technology caused insecurity
Such societies no doubt suffer instances of stress and no one would suggest that their lives are in any way perfect. They dwell in radically different environments to ours but both Bruce Parry and Daniel Everettt – two people who have spent much time with hunter gatherer tribes – agreed that there are lessons to be learnt from these societies that can be translated to our own lives and that may alter our definition of what it is to be ‘happy.’
‘Self-sufficiency and confidence in their own ability is very important.’
‘I have changed the way I live in response to my experience with hunter gatherers’
‘…Bruce then talked about groups that had been on the verge of changing and that had employed people to destroy the forest around them (a tribe in Brazil). However, suddenly they had a ‘wake-up call’ and stopped. It’s not to say that they do not want comfort and luxury in their lives, but they realised that in order to change the price was not worth it and that there would be no security for their children’s future. ‘
‘…Daniel then told a story of a tribe he was staying with. The people were sitting around the fire and they had all taken it in turns to bring firewood. Daniel spotted a very old, stooped man who was struggling to bring a few small sticks of firewood to the group. When he did this, one of the men gave him a large piece of meat to eat in return for the wood. When Daniel enquired of the man why he gave him the meat as the pieces of firewood were so small, he replied: ‘When I was a little boy he put meat in my mouth and now he is an old man, I put meat in his mouth.’
‘There are a number of points of animism that offer satisfying personal choices in life, but can I justify them all scientifically? No. Do I try to reconcile them with science? No. And do I care if they are reconciled? No. If we are going to hold mutually inconsistent beliefs, just admit that they are mutually inconsistent.’
WHAT CAN WE DO?
In view of all this, what steps can we take to overcome stress or just make positive changes to our lives? Obviously sound nutrition, sleep and exercise are all important. But if we look at some of the lessons from hunter gatherer (and other traditional) societies we can begin to think of potential areas of change:
- Reconnecting with shared religious and spiritual values.
- Reconnecting with our history and heritage – through music, food, literature, dance, history, religion, spirituality – to find our place in the world once more.
- Connecting with our social group – family, friends, neighbours. Renewing those bonds and structures. Forming new bonds and structures based on shared values.
- Sharing the benefits of our creativity or knowledge with others in our ‘tribe’/community.
- Helping others where possible , feeling part of something bigger within our ‘tribe’/community.
- Making time for leisure activities as much as possible, yet seeing ‘leisure time’ as constructive, creative and essential for mental well-being rather than as a ‘waste of time’. These activities may be as part of a group or as an individual.
- Doing something that that is a learning process (but being careful how we define ‘learning’ i.e. not restricting it).
In terms of the the hunter gatherers discussed above, there was no concept of:
- Eating for health
- Exercising to get fit
- Sleep disorders
- Stress reduction techniques
These things are naturally a part of their lives. There is – or was – no distinction.
Although atomisation/social isolation was not unknown, it was rare. There was a cohesive sense of group belonging; something that we continue to lose in the modern world as we disconnect from our traditions.
When we eat rather than ‘diet’, when we move with pleasure rather than ‘exercise’ out of duty, when we get rid of the constant pressure to be ‘happy’ (rather than content), when we acknowledge our circadian rhythm and our links to the natural world, when we accept that we are not ‘consumers’ to be manipulated into acquiring ever more ‘things’… this will change us.
It is the little changes that make the big differences – making time to give thanks for what we have, taking joy in the gift of the natural world around us, going for a gentle walk each day, making time to learn something new, seeing family and friends, eating nutrient dense food, taking time to sleep properly, lifting some heavy things, enjoying a hobby…