Stress, a symptom of politics

We're told our mental health problems are as the result of chemical imbalances in the brain, of a failure to manage our stress levels. But what if that's not the case? What if the mental health crisis is a result of the political and economic system we live in?

Jon Deery
23rd March 2021
Image: Marxist Sociology Blog
Mental health and physical health are inseparably intertwined. Crucially, this works both ways: stress distorts the body, and the body shapes our stress levels. In our age of individualism, we tend to blame ourselves and our bodies for our mental health difficulties; “Self-Help” is a bestselling genre of books, premised entirely on the idea that we are the cause of, and solution to, all of our own problems. But there’s something missing from this equation: the way we think, feel and act is massively influenced by politics.

Acclaimed neuroscientist Dr Robert Sapolsky wrote a book in 1994 called Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: Stress and Health. The book argues that prolonged psychological stress can change our bodies in damaging ways, leading to heart disease, ulcers, diabetes and more. 

In a more recent lecture about the book, he says the following:

“You are more likely to feel subjectively stressed… and [therefore] more at risk for stress-related diseases, if you feel like you have no control, no predictability, no outlets for the frustration, if you interpret things as getting worse, and you have nobody’s shoulder to cry on.”

What I’d like to argue is that every single one of these feelings is a rational (and common) response to the harsh economic world around us. In an age of steadily eroding democracy, in which the power of unaccountable billionaires is increasing every day, feeling a lack of control is only natural. In an unstable economy prone to sharp, devastating crashes, predictability is absent. In a rapidly heating world, it’s difficult not to interpret things as getting worse.

Mark Fisher, whose work Capitalist Realism argues for a political reading of modern mental health, said “it is not an exaggeration to say that being a teenager in late capitalist Britain is now close to being reclassified as a sickness.”

Because what Sapolsky reveals is that mental health problems are medical problems, in more areas of the body than just the mind. Stress cost the NHS an estimated £71 million in 2016/17, but when you add the cost of stress-related diseases like heart disease to that total, it’s over £11 billion a year

Research by Oliver James has found notable rises in the rates of “mental distress” over the last 25 years. It would be hard to attribute this to anything other than a changing social environment; James himself blames what he calls “selfish” capitalism.

“The Selfish Capitalist toxins that are most poisonous to well-being,” he writes, “are the systematic encouragement of the ideas that material affluence is the key to fulfilment, that only the affluent are winners and that access to the top is open to anyone willing to work hard enough, regardless of their familial, ethnic or social background - if you do not succeed, there is only one person to blame.”

Our current economy is, by nature, particularly destructive - not just to our environment, but to our minds and our bodies.

Believing that mental health is influenced by the economy doesn’t just have implications for the economy. It also allows us a new perspective on our own mental health. We’re told by self-help gurus and the current medical establishment that the solutions to our own problems are either drugs or rigorous self-discipline. The implication here being that there’s something “wrong” with either our bodies or our approach to life, that needs fixing. Now, obviously, these personal solutions have a long record of success, and for many, drugs are helpful and even vital. 

But when we know there are larger factors at play, we no longer feel “responsible” for getting ourselves into mental health difficulties in the first place. And the acceptance of that can often be a life-saving relief for those most in need of stress-relief. In a stressful economy, that’s all of us.

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