Stress & The Good Old Days

Medical Reviewer

I keep coming across articles that describe anxiety and stress in terms of a 21st century plague. There's little doubt that we are much more aware of anxiety and its relationship to ill health, but is it right to say we are more stressed than at any time previously?

On average, and certainly in developed nations, the answer is probably yes. Recent studies suggest that one in three people suffer from stress and that figure is growing. There are all sorts of reasons for this but if we opt for a generalization it is easy to see how our way of life is become faster, more demanding and less healthy. Society has moved to a 24 hour, 7 day a week hub of activities. We sleep less well, work more, eat poorly and we don't exercise enough. We've all heard this and more besides.

Of course some of this is self-inflicted. We respond to the pressures of acquiring status and money in order to buy all the trappings that seem to make life a little better. My family isn't so different. We always seem to be getting another gadget, upgrading the computer, the TV and on it goes. My father-in-law, who is in his mid 80s has a memory that suggests a slightly more refined, gentler world. Scratch the surface however and what's revealed is an early life of relative deprivation in a Welsh mining valley, followed by a war as a Spitfire pilot, the loss of friends,  and life put on hold in the years of austerity that followed. I know which world I prefer. The likelihood is that stress is all relative to the times. The things that now make us stressed are somewhat different to those of our parents and their parents, but no less meaningful.

We now have evidence that people who lived between 550 and 1532 A.D. were stressed. A recent study in the Journal of Archaeological Science detected the stress hormone cortisol in the hair of ancient Peruvians. Researchers discovered that by studying hair samples it was possible to show multiple episodes of stress.

Cortisol is often referred to as the stress hormone because it is released in greater quantities when the person is under stress. Cortisol occurs naturally in the body and follows a regular cycle with greater amounts in morning and less during the evening. During the fight-or-flight response associated with stress, more cortisol is released into the blood stream. This helps make us more alert and gears the body for action. Once released, cortisol finds its way to nearly every part of the body, including the hair, urine and saliva.

We've a lot to be thankful for. We live longer, we have better health provision and technology than at any time previously, but we don't necessarily make the best use of it. The brave new world of technology taking over mundane and stressful tasks has arrived to some extent, but rather than relaxing we've diversified to take on new and more complex activities than ever before. One thing is for sure. Nobody is likely to take us aside and talk about our work-life balance in a way that makes it meaningful. The last place I work actually tried this, but we had to squeeze it in as an extra activity, which seemed to miss the point. Like so many other things in life it comes back to us as individuals to take stock of our lives and make the best use of what we can with it.


University of Western Ontario (2009, December 12). Studying hair of ancient Peruvians answers questions about stress. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 31, 2009, from