Expert has advice: Psychologist: “People are more stressed today than ever before”


Expert has advice: Psychologist: “People are more stressed today than ever before”

Ms. Engert, you have been researching stress for years. Has this made you particularly good at avoiding it in yourself? No, unfortunately I'm also one of those people who usually do too much.

If you look back in human history, stressful situations were often a matter of life and death: the bear that attacked you or the mammoth. Based on that, shouldn't we actually be doing pretty well? Today, other things are actually causing the stress. The computer crashes even though you have to finish a text, the daycare center calls because the child is sick or the train strike prevents you from coming to your lecture. None of these are life-threatening events. Unfortunately, our body's reaction to this is fundamentally the same: the body and all of its systems prepare to achieve top performance in its own rescue.

However, the attack on our ancestors was usually over quite quickly. That's true, a healthy stress reaction only lasts a few hours - but today's stressors often accompany us for much longer. And what is particularly fatal: they add up. Many little things that we experience every day can stress us out so much that we end up getting sick.

Many people have the impression that everything is too much for them. What is it that bothers us so much? What stresses us out the most is when we find something difficult to control and unpredictable, when we feel overwhelmed and our self-image is threatened in some way. Many people don't really get anywhere in their own lives because they are constantly busy trying to become faster, better and more beautiful.

But that is exactly what meritocracy seems to demand. The times when you can really take a deep breath and calm down have become the exception. What does this mean for a stress system that is actually geared towards sprints and not long distances? In the long run, this leads to chronic stress because we constantly keep the stress system simmering on a low flame. You can see this in cortisol, for example. In the morning, the level of the hormone should be very high. This prepares us for whatever demands the day brings. Cortisol levels then fall throughout the day. At night it is actually at the lowest level so you can sleep better. Because the high cortisol inhibits the immune system, many immunological repair processes also start during these hours. With a permanently elevated stress level, however, the curve flattens until an almost straight - but overall elevated - line is created. The result: sleep is no longer restful, you can't get going in the morning, your immune system is disrupted, and many metabolic processes no longer run smoothly.

How long can you endure something like that? We can often cope with stress at work for quite a while, at least if we manage to relax every now and then - switch off in the evening, recharge at the weekend or while playing with the children. It becomes dangerous when these islands sink, when you have to take care of your sick parents in your free time, when your relationship with your partner becomes ill or when you constantly question yourself.

Is there a maximum stress level that you shouldn't exceed? You can imagine the level of stress that can be endured as if it were a barrel. When it is full, it overflows - but individual resilience varies greatly. A problem that we often don't consider is that it's not just our own stress that ends up in the barrel. We now know that others can also influence us with their stress.

Is stress contagious? Yes, it actually is. If we consciously stress our test subjects with unpleasant exam or application situations and let people watch through the glass or on the screen, they too react stressed. The closer you feel to what you are observing, the stronger the reaction. For example, when children see their parents stressed, it also affects their own cognitive function and performance.

What does this mean in a time when we see the suffering of others every day in the news and social media? We have to be aware that there are things that bother us, even if they don't happen to us. Many people believe that all these crises around us do not affect them inside, but they do. That's why I actually think people are more stressed today than they've ever been.

How can you protect yourself from this? By consciously distancing yourself and not taking in all this suffering directly. In the long term, you should create islands of relaxation for yourself, for example, forbid yourself from watching the news several times a day and simply do nothing, consciously and calmly drink your tea or go for a walk.

Sometimes it is not even possible to maintain this distance. Are there other strategies to protect yourself? What does research know about it? A very important skill and one that can also be trained is compassion. And I don't mean pity by that. Because that makes you feel bad too. Compassion goes beyond that. It generates the desire for others and yourself to feel better. After three months of compassion training, we were able to show in our working group that the acute and long-term stress levels of our participants were significantly reduced.

How do you explain this success? It's probably because these people also develop more understanding of themselves and can forgive themselves better when they make a mistake. We also know that it is helpful to look at a situation as objectively as possible and to put difficult or unpleasant thoughts and feelings into perspective. This also includes being aware that a bad feeling firstly does not have to be a fundamental truth and secondly that it can go away again.

The promise of modernity is: those who work hard will succeed. And so we often look with envy at the people who get up at five o'clock because they can handle an even larger workload. Many people don't plan to switch off. That's right, and a certain amount of stress can even initially be fun or energizing for us. Maybe you also feel valued because you have been given more responsibility. But if the stress doesn't stop and you feel like you're losing control or can't recharge, you should do something.

What warning symptoms should you notice? A good indicator is sleep. When you notice that you can't fall asleep, don't sleep through the night, or wake up early even though you're still tired. This is a good sign that something is getting out of hand.

Burnout and illnesses caused by stress have long been considered men's afflictions. Is there something to that? When the German housewife model was still in place, it was more often the hard-working men who were so stressed that they developed burnout or cardiovascular problems. However, I can very well imagine that this is currently changing.

Women now know and see more and more what they can have - a successful professional life, a family, maybe not just one child, but two or three. But every child costs a woman a lot of strength and energy just through pregnancy and birth. And even after that, women often invest a lot more time in looking after and raising their children than men, in addition to their jobs. The burden on these women today is probably often greater than that of many men.

The star focuses on one topic: ways to get out of exhaustion. Many Germans feel like Jürgen Klopp: exhausted. You can read what helps against this here. Helen Heinemann, work-life balance expert, explains in this video the warning signs you can use to recognize burnout.