I am driving in the car, listening to the radio and I hear someone say that “Before 1976, The New York Times had never published an article about stress as we understand it today. Our idea of stress — as a personal, internal problem — is a recent invention.”

No stress?  If I time-traveled back to chat with some people in 1960, they wouldn’t know what I was talking about?

Everyone I know talks about being stressed. A recent American Psychological Association report on stress revealed that 33% of Americans are living with extreme stress and nearly 50% believe stress has increased over the past five years.  From 1970 to 1980, 2,326 academic articles appeared with the word “stress” in the title, but between 2000 and 2010 that number jumped to 21,750. Are we ten times more stressful or are we too focused on the concept of stress?

The interview was with Dana Becker whose new book is One Nation Under Stress: The Trouble with Stress as an Idea.  Her argument is that our national infatuation (very American) with therapy has us focused too much on managing stress.

She sees this as a very middle-class idea that we can manage the stress of life by turning inward and perhaps turning away from the social/political realities that probably create that stress.

That sound escapist. Think about this: we have very little or no control over many stressors like our workplace, economic inequality, environmental issues, the media, war, and terrorism. Can we turn them off, or at least temporarily turn away from them?

There is a PBS series called This Emotional Life that covered stress too. Two neuroscientists, Robert Sapolsky and Bruce McEwen, talked about stress in the form of stimulation can be a positive force in our lives, though too much stress can have adverse affects on the brain.

Got enough stress? Need more? Of course, the issue is the balancing, like that delicate needle on the compass that swings so easily.

I think you can get distracted by the ways to bring balance (yoga, meditation, vacations, weekends…) to the point of increasing stress.

Maybe the problem is our changing definitions of stress. After all, Becker’s book is about “The Trouble With Stress as an Idea.

Maybe the problem is more with an obsession with curing stress, rather than identifying and addressing the forces that cause it. Take a chill pill. Feel better? Yes. Are things better? No.

In that NPR radio show I was listening to in the car, Becker says that in the middle of the 19th century, George Beard, coined the term neurasthenia, which people were calling a “nervous disease” (no stress yet). He had already identified this as something found with middle-class patients who were complaining to their doctors about it. Beard didn’t think it was within, but that the cause was the increasing pace of American life.

So it is, she says, “…not a thing out there. It’s an idea. And it’s an idea that has a certain currency. And it shapes, really, the way we talk, the way we think about ourselves, and the way we think about our relationship to the world… I’m certainly not saying, because people do ask me, you know, ‘Are you saying there’s no such thing as the experience of stress?’ And I’m saying, no, no. We do experience something we are calling stress… It feels like we’re using the term to cover just about everything, from a hangnail to the war on terror.”

It is a good thing for us to take care of ourselves. But in what ways?

She is bucking a powerful and profitable mental health industry that doesn’t seem to agree about the solutions.

So many questions:  Are your problems individual and intrapsychic ones?  Is stress a lifestyle problem? Are larger social issues to blame? Is stress the price we pay for progress?

Any of the posts I have written here about mental health or physical health or any combination of both always seem to lean towards escape. That’s what this blog began as – a weekend escape to a place I call Paradelle. I don’t think of escape as just the cabin in the woods or the tropical beach (though I do think of those!), but also as the turning off of the TV news, weeding in my garden, putting in earplugs, drinking coffee in the park and watching ducks, reading haiku and staring at clouds. You take your escape when you can get it.

When I was in a depression, a friend told me to get on a drug he was taking. He felt better, but he wasn’t solving any of the problems that made him depressed. Maybe some of those problems were really unsolvable, but he didn’t care to even try to work on the ones that he might have solved.

If you have a stone in your shoe, you can just limp and favor the other foot. Maybe you could even get pain medication so that you don’t notice the stone. But you know you have to take off the shoe and get rid of that stone. You have to find what makes your compass needle point to your true north.