There are two essential differences between stress and the bubonic plague. The first is that stress generally won’t culminate in a fatal outbreak of festering sores. The second is that stress does not have a known cure.
The plague, in fact, was only one of countless deadly diseases conquered by pre-industrial pathologists. The great medical revolution of the 19th century saw the development of vaccines for cholera, tetanus, diphtheria, and typhoid fever, among a variety of other unpleasant affixations. Man was able to wage modern war against microorganisms long before it he could wage modern war against other men.
Many experts would argue that the scientific community has proven equally successful in the campaign against stress. After all, medications such as Xanax and Valium have been clinically proven to reduce the symptoms of individuals suffering from anxiety disorders.
Look on the back of the little orange vile of pills, however, and you may have second thoughts. Drugs designed to alter the activity of the human brain generally feature some frightening side effects, ranging anywhere from dizziness to aggressive seizures.
Mankind doesn’t want a pill to mask the effects of stress – we want a vaccine to eliminate stress from our lives altogether. We want to be pricked once with a needle and never have to worry about worrying again.
It seems a reasonable expectation that science be able to protect us from ourselves.
That, however, is exactly why stress exists in the top tier of incurable ailments. Anxiety isn’t floating in the air around us. You can’t catch it from a door handle or a sneeze. It can’t be seen under a microscope or on the screen of a computer. It is an inherent component of the human body and mind. Stress is as natural of an emotional reaction as fear, anger, or surprise. And you certainly don’t see anyone trying to cure those.
Modern media has given stress a life of its own. It is the topic of television shows, scientific journals, and blogs. There are stacks of publications at GW’s Himmelfarb Library dedicated solely to the topic. This publicity serves to present the rather standardized conception that stress is the enemy.
I’m not convinced.
If human physiology is capable of producing a certain reaction, it is most likely the case that the reaction exists for a good reason. In times of danger or difficulty, the sensation of stress forces us to reconsider our priorities. It forces us to get to work and accomplish what needs to be done. It serves as a natural blindfold to everything else in our environment that could pose a distraction.
Reviewing my chaotic schedule for the upcoming weekend, I am grateful for my capacity to feel anxious. It reminds me that my homework is more important than partying. It won’t let me get to sleep until I have finished studying for my midterm exams. It gives me the chance to be a good student.
We oftentimes claim not to be able to survive with so much so much stress in our lives. The real question, however, is whether we can survive without it.