When Plenty Is Too Much
Jun. 08, 2011 - Ah, the wonders of modern American life, with its fast pace, 24/7 news, and abundant food - but does it go against our survival instincts?
Some experts say yes.
"We were groomed for millennia to survive on too little," says Mary Jane Rotheram-Borus, Ph.D., at the University of California-Los Angeles. "We didn't have enough food. We didn't have enough clothing. Our genetic code was built on those who could survive adversity."
Today's always-on culture and cheap, convenient food is affecting our mental and physical health, Dr. Rotheram-Borus says. Our survival instinct drives us to enjoy to the hilt what we've got when we have it. So, Americans today eat an average of 1,000 more calories each day than they need.
And, in addition to the endless stream of information from the Internet and cable news, text messaging and smart phones add to people's stress because they "create a pressure to be constantly available," says psychiatrist Felicia Wong, M.D. That on-call status was once limited to only a few professions - from doctors to firefighters - but it now extends to all of us.
"There's no wonder people feel stressed out," Dr. Wong says. "Now mundane life is an emergency."
Dr. Rotheram-Borus says these problems are societal in nature. "It's structural," she says. "Changes in society have been major in the last 30 years, and we haven't adjusted our lifestyles. These are structural problems that have nothing to do with people making bad decisions."
Nonetheless, she adds, if something isn't done about this, we may face a future in which obesity is rampant, stress is overwhelming, and everyone is deep in debt.
What's the answer?
Doctors are finding that when people cut back - by eating less or reducing their media viewing, for instance - their mental and physical health improves.
Here are suggestions from Drs. Rotheram-Borus and Wong on how to cut back:
- Establish a routine that follows your values - and those you want your kids to adopt. For example, make family dinners the norm, rather than an occasional treat. "If you value your kids more than your job, you need to be at home for dinner," Dr. Rotheram-Borus says.
- Take a time out before making a purchase. Be clear about what you need when you go into a store.
- Cut back on how much you eat, and choose healthy foods.
- Turn off the cell phone and disconnect from other media for a set period each day.
- Remember that gifts don't always have to be purchases. Experiences, favors, and thoughtful gestures can be just as meaningful.
How to Keep Stress in Check
You can effectively deal with stress, but it takes determination and patience. Learn to accept or change stressful situations when you can. Here are other suggestions from Mental Health America on how to cope with stress:
- Learn to say no. If you feel overwhelmed by your hectic schedule, figure out what you can eliminate - and learn to say no to new responsibilities.
- Pass up perfection. Be realistic about what you can accomplish, and don't hesitate to ask for help if you need it.
- Prioritize. Focus on one task you need to do at a time. Decide which is the most urgent and tackle that one first. From there, go down your list one at a time. This will help keep you from feeling overwhelmed.
- Have a support system. It's OK to lean on others at times. Taking time to talk with friends and family about what's bothering you can make a real difference.
- Exercise and enjoy your leisure time. Step away from your stress by setting aside time for exercise, leisure, and relaxation. Don't use leisure time as a reward for completing work or chores. Build it into your schedule all through the year.
Always talk with your health care provider to find out more information.