A Culture of Stress and Constant Competition: How the Mores of Modern Society Impact the Brain

Stressed male freelancer using laptop

Stress is a vital part of life – it allows us to survive by preparing us for danger or responding to perceived threats. Short-term stress can be positive because it helps motivate our brains and bodies to stay alert, sharp, and ready to act. However, our bodies and brains pay the price when constantly stressed out. In today’s society, we are uniquely prone to chronic stress, unlike ever before. However, stress has likely been a part of the human condition.  

In the past, the day-to-day struggle to simply survive in the face of famine, disease, natural disasters, and war predominated. So, how do we consider ourselves more stressed today compared to our predecessors? Modernity and societal advancement are typically seen as beautiful things. Who does not appreciate all the conveniences of present-day life, including readily accessible food, modern medicine, instantaneous communication, easily procured transportation, and limitless electricity? However, there is a downside to the increasingly accelerated growth and prosperity Western societies have experienced starting with the industrial revolution in the 19th century and, more recently, the digital process in the latter half of the 20th century. Moreover, it can be argued that we are in the midst of yet another technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way people work, live, and connect with the emergence of social media platforms as a means of communication and information sharing, marking a fundamental change to how societies and individuals interact.  

Yet the question remains, what is the cost as we experience this unprecedented growth and intermingling of the digital, physical, and biological spheres? It is possible that the unavoidable integration of technology in our daily lives could increase our stress and diminish our overall well-being. While a certain degree of stress is accepted as necessary for productivity and performance, persistent or chronic stress threatens modern Western populations’ health and welfare.  

It was not until relatively recently, during the mid-20th century, that Western societies and science began to name the combination of psychological and related physiological responses individuals exhibit when overwhelmed as “stress.” Although commonly understood as universal, stress is a culture-bound concept influenced by complex societal, historical, and social processes. Only when we accurately contextualize the idea of stress and how it shapes our lives today may we understand how stress became so prevalent in modern society.  

First, it is essential to understand how the body processes stress. Remember, our stress response is critical for survival. The “fight-or-flight” response allows us and other animals to act quickly when there is danger. When we are startled, the amygdala or “fear center” of the brain is triggered to activate our central stress response system, known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal cortical (HPA) axis. This causes a cascade of events, including the production of the stress hormone cortisol, an increase in glucose levels, increased heart rate, and an increase in blood flow to the muscles in the arms and legs that permits us to readily respond, usually by fighting the threat or fleeing from it. The HPA axis depends on hormonal signals to keep the sympathetic nervous system or “gas pedal” engaged. After the danger has passed, cortisol levels fall, and the body will eventually return to normal as the parasympathetic or “brake” counteracts the body’s stress response.

In the case of chronic stress, however, the brain’s fear center is constantly activated, meaning that the “gas pedal” is continuously pressed, keeping the body in a persistent state of stress. In other words, the body stayed on high alert and revved for action, much like a high-performance racecar idling at the starting line for too long. As a result, cortisol levels remain elevated, which can eventually cause various health problems such as digestive issues, sleep problems, weight gain, heart disease, high blood pressure, weakened immune system, and musculoskeletal issues.  

Attractive woman stressed and thinking
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In addition to the negative health consequences, chronic stress can also hurt the brain, such as impaired memory and concentration, increasing a person’s risk of developing mental health issues and actual changes in the structure and function of the brain. Furthermore, it is hypothesized that when one part of the brain is constantly engaged, the other parts of the brain may not have enough energy to carry out its functions properly.   

In light of all the potential adverse outcomes associated with chronic stress, what causes it, and how has it become so prevalent in modern society? According to Dr. Howard Murad, cultural stress is a new form of stress overlaying the normal stresses of everyday living. It can include overexposure to technology, especially at the expense of in-person interaction, around-the-clock connectivity that makes maintaining boundaries between work and home complex, changes to transportation patterns resulting in less physical activity, and the rapidity of technological and economic advancement bringing about increased isolation. Given the pervasiveness and chronicity of these modern stressors, the brain and body seldom have the opportunity to recover. 

In today’s hectic society, there are many possible sources of chronic stress. Still, it usually falls into one of the following categories: emotional stress, environmental stress, relationship stress, or work stress. In many cases, there is a confluence of stressors that can simultaneously affect multiple life domains. For example, work-related stress can contribute to a stressful home environment and exacerbate any emotional stress, putting a strain on personal relationships. The overarching question is, how have these various stressors become so entrenched and predictable in modern life? Some may even argue that you are not doing enough if you are not stressed out.  

Dr. Jim Stone highlighted the disparity between the modern environment we live in today and the environment our ancestors inhabited. For example, we regularly interact with a diverse cross-section of people and perpetually encounter a wide assortment of knowledge, skills, and values, thus straining our brains to interpret and organize this spectrum of diversity. Increased specialization due to the vast amount of information gathered over the centuries has led individuals to work harder than ever to gain mastery of increasingly smaller fragments of knowledge and expertise. It is no longer realistic to be a Renaissance man or Jack of all trades and be successful. Markets are more efficient, and competition is fiercer. Innovations come along rapidly, and one can quickly become irrelevant overnight and left behind partly due to the high degree of specialization, diversity, and market efficiency.  

Another normative human behavior strategy we see being altered in our current technology culture is social comparison – comparing ourselves to others so we may better understand our individual abilities, opinions, and performance. In other words, assessing how we measure up to others. Unfortunately, when we evaluate various aspects of ourselves compared to others, we tend to use higher and often unrealistic standards. This, in turn, increases our negative thoughts, beliefs, and emotions leading to negative feelings and higher stress levels. Social media platforms provide the perfect opportunity for social comparison, and there is evidence that increased use can lead to increased depressive symptoms, lower self-esteem, and poorer body image.

In addition to social comparison, modern societal norms tend to encourage competition. Our propensity for competitiveness is also another vestige from our ancestors. The instinctual drive to compete for finite resources to survive makes evolutionary sense, but is it helpful in today’s society?  Competition can be viewed as the most basic form of social struggle in which we strive against one another for scarce or limited goods. It occurs whenever there is an insufficient supply of anything desirable. Several characteristics determine the nature of competition that are important to note. Namely, competition is an impersonal struggle, it is an unconscious activity, and it is universal. The competition also serves many valuable social functions, such as encouraging motivation, increasing productivity, promoting progress, and organizing various systems. In reality, our past and present social system is a precarious balance between cooperative and competitive forces.

From the information provided, it is clear that the modern culture of social media uses across multiple platforms with habituated social comparison upward, drastic advances in technology and innovation, and constant competition are all interconnected and can lead to chronic stress for many individuals. The hope in drawing attention to this topic is not to galvanize people into altering their behavior but rather to cultivate a better understanding of how modern societal norms may impact their brain, overall health, and well-being.