Why Are We All So Stressed Out?

It was in New Zealand, that Jamie and I realized we were losing our minds and bodies.  We had been living in an apartment complex with 30,000 people in Hong Kong and raising our child in the concrete jungle of Asia's most exciting city.  Now in New Zealand, we were watching our son Marco step on grass for the first time.  He was 3 years old.   

We began to wonder what the effect was on our bodies to be living in a place where there is very little green space, constant noise, and non-stop stimulation. As we felt our blood pressure and stress levels go down in New Zealand and Australia, we wondered, "Are our brains and bodies constantly under stress from our environment and we don't realize it? Is that possible? Sub-conscious stress?"  Anytime we traveled to more rural places in Asia-Pacific, we felt our bodies and minds change.  What was going on? 

Shortly after that, I read a study which showed that, sure enough, the human body is not really wired for urban living.  The sounds of subways, traffic, construction and everything else causes stress on the brain.  These are artificial, man-made sounds and the brain doesn't receive them well.  On the contrary, when people hear natural sounds-- the sounds of birds chirping, the wind blowing through the trees, and other sounds of nature--the brain actually relaxes.

And then, a short time later, another study came out that explained that the brain needs 20 minutes of meditation, or silence a day.  Scientists had discovered that just as the brain demands sleep, it also demands silence or meditation where all extra noises and distractions are blocked out.  The people who did this were far healthier than those that did not.  How interesting that the Bible is full of suggestions that we pray.  It turns out we are wired to pray for the sake of our bodies alone.     

Since then, many studies have come out that verify all these findings.  One recent study said that anyone walking through a forest for 10 minutes will have their blood-pressure and pulse lowered.  Putting yourself in a natural setting (no buildings, no manufactured things--just nature) puts your body at ease.   Another one in 2008 studied Buddhist monks and found that their meditation brought them to levels of calm and peace that couldn't be attained by people practicing meditation for a short period of time.  Even when test groups concentrated on peaceful thoughts, they couldn't match the level of relaxation of those who practiced it regularly.  Meditation and the relaxation of the mind and body is something that can be developed like muscles from working out. The body and brain want to tune out everything other than nature and quiet for much of the day.  

Nowadays, I feel it very clearly.  We live in Germany, not far from lakes and parks.  And much of Europe is actually pretty rural and made up of small-towns; more so than the United States or Asia.  Nature doesn't seem as far away, and walking through parks, mountains, or woods seems to physically make us all feel better. We love our bike rides now.

Our modern world is full of anxious people.  Anxiety problems, stress-related illnesses, mental illness and depression are not just a Western problem, they are on the rise everywhere that the world is urbanizing.  The more we leave nature behind, the more we are placing ourselves in artificial, high-stress environments that over-stimulate us with unnatural sounds and sights.  

Now, with the rise of the internet (laptops, cell phones, i-pads, etc), much of the world is plugged into constant stimulation all of their waking hours.  Working at a computer terminal, the sound of an email coming in on your phone as you walk, the time spent watching videos or shows on our laptop--all of it is draining on your mind and body.  Every day we discover a new app, or a new gadget that further embeds us deeply into the artificial world--and away from nature.  We go to sleep at night with our cell phones by our side simulating the sounds of crickets or waterfalls so that we can sleep. 

For most of human history, the average person knew and had contact with very few people--under 120 and in many cases, much less than that.  Today, we probably see or interact, or hear the voices, or see the images of many more people than that each day.  How many faces did I see on my laptop today? How many names and images passed by me on Facebook?  How many people did I pass on the street today?  How many people did I write emails to today?  More than most humans would have been exposed to in months or years throughout much of human history.  The world has been overwhelmingly rural until the 1980's. Even the cities of the past (much smaller and less interactive than today's cities) are nothing compared to the kind of stimulation we feel in a small or mid-size city in the 21st Century.  

Are we wired for this?  I don't think we are.  Urbanization is extreme (with 60% of the world's people living in cities now), but the virtual world is completely engulfing our minds and our nerves.  All of our clever gadgets don't save time, they just create more time that we then fill with Angry Birds or Pinterest.  These things are great:  free phone calls and Skype, seeing video of your grandkids school play immediately, having GPS in your car.  But all of that requires excessive artificial stimulation.  It takes us toward man-made contraptions, makes us dependent on them, and fills every second of our day. 

Is this how we should live?  Probably not if we want to stay healthy.  Rates of mental illness and depression are almost non-existent in tribal societies and cultures that are still living in nature.  (And interestingly tribes that are moved to the man-made world like the Native American Indians, the Australian Aboriginals, and the Bushmen of the Kalahari suffer deep depression).  The modern world is what it is.  We're not going to get rid of it.  And actually cities continue to be the most eco-friendly and innovative way for humans to live (Yes, you heard that right).  Cities maximize land usage, spur innovation, and raise living standards.  Urbanization leads to progress, less disease, and more economic opportunity.  This has been well-establsihed now too.  But it also has a cost and it leads to a world detached from silence and from spiritual things.

It's interesting to notice how often Jesus leaves people and over-stimulating environments to pray.  Isolation was good in his view.  Silence was good.  Like most of you, I am greatly enjoying this technological revolution.  Recently, I started using the Glo Bible on an I-Pad and that has been great fun.  And like many of you, I love cities.  I love the dynamism, the mix of cultures, the diversity, and the innovation that cities bring.  I don't wish for a world without urbanization or technological advancement.  I'm not a Luddite.  I'm a city-kid through and through.  Any city, anywhere. 

However, there is something soul-killing, stress-inducing, and excessively artificial about our modern lives.  And it is really starting to show in our societies.  Our lives may be enriching and even invigorating, but they are rarely peaceful.  Even our church services are rarely peaceful--every second filled with songs, sermons, announcements, and entertainment.  The air we breathe is mostly polluted.  The food we eat (even if you are a Veg), is filled with chemicals.  Our water is not really pure.  Our Oceans are often not very pure anymore.  And the physical and mental illnesses we are suffering from can so often be linked to man-made things.  We don't realize that we are forgetting what grass feels like.  Like the proverbial frog in the kettle who doesn't realize he's getting boiled to death as the temperature slowly goes up; everyday we are adopting more of the new, modern stuff, and slowly disregarding the old stuff--and we don't even realize it.  We all sit too much, for instance.  The body was not meant to sit as much as we do in the modern world, and excessive sitting is like smoking cigarettes for your body.  It's unhealthy.  Think of what life was like in the previous centuries.  Who could sit down as much as we do?  Are our bodies made for this?

I wonder if kids today know what it's like to build a fort? To ride their BMX for hours down dusty paths?  Do they know how to play army utilizing nothing but their fingers and their imagination?  I grew up in San Francisco and my childhood memories are filled with nature.  The trip to the deli where they had Astroids required a bike ride, and the bike ride was more fun than playing Astroids.  We've noticed (and perhaps many of you parents have too) that our child is actually happier on days when we forbid him from using computers or any tech gadgets.  

I'd like to make sure my family doesn't get overloaded by the noise of the 21st Century as we all continue to adopt new technologies.  I think we are going to have to make a conscious effort to go out into the wilderness and seek God through silence.  Because it's not going to happen otherwise.  Prayer has always been recommended as part of the life of faith.  But in the near future, whether you are religious or not; prayer may be the only way that we can stay sane and still live on this increasingly artificial planet.