INSIDE Chico State
0 April 20, 2000
Volume 30 Number 18
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Thriving Under Pressure

Responding to Change

Walt Schafer

In a previous column, I expressed my opinion that one of the most prescient analyses of American society in recent times was Alvin Toffler's 1970 book, Future Shock. Toffler wrote: "Western society for the past 300 years has been caught up in a fire storm of change. This storm, far from abating, now appears to be gathering force. Change sweeps through the highly industrialized countries with waves of ever-accelerating speed and unprecedented impact. The acceleration of change does not merely buffet industries or nations. It is a concrete force that reaches deep into our personal lives, compels us to act out new roles, and confronts us with the danger of a new and powerfully upsetting disease. This new disease can be called 'future shock.' We may define future shock as the distress, both physical and psychological, that arises from an overload of the human organism's physical adaptive systems and its decision-making processes. Put more simply, future shock is the human response to overstimulation." Even Toffler, of course, could not completely foresee in 1970 the accelerating pace of the information revolution and its enormous impact on our personal lives in the late twentieth century.

How does accelerating change at the social level lead to mental and physical distress -- and distress-related illnesses -- at the individual level? These linkages are highly complex, of course. Still, we can identify several ways personal experience is impacted by social change.

Overchoice. Many Americans feel overwhelmed by choices -- what to do, how to live, what to believe, what to buy, where to move, how to look, what to wear, and more.

Overload in pace of daily life. We do more, move faster, expect more of ourselves and others -- often to the point where we feel overwhelmed with too much to do in too little time.

More transitions. We change jobs and move more, the organizations in which we work change faster, we change lifestyles -- all this added to role transitions that are predictable throughout the life cycle.

Greater clustering of life events. Studies for more than thirty years have clearly shown an increased risk of mental and physical illness from the clustering of multiple stressful life events within a few weeks or months.

More daily hassles. Small daily frustrations, which seem to increase in frequency and intensity with faster social change, have been shown to adversely affect health even more than major life events.

This question remains: Precisely how do these change-induced experiences get into our minds and bodies to produce the mental and physical distress (future shock) about which Toffler wrote? In the broadest sense, it does so through exposing each of us to a greater number, variety, and intensity of stressors. The results are more mental and physical adjustments per day, week, year. Stress -- arousal of mind and body in response to demands -- becomes more common. So does overload distress, which means harm to mind, body, and relationships from too much arousal. A complex set of neurological and hormonal pathways intervene between experience and mind-body distress.

We in higher education are impacted by accelerating change as much as anyone, sometimes more. We see and feel it every day. What can one do to minimize these potentially harmful effects of accelerating social change? There are no simple answers, of course, but here are a few suggestions:

  • Insofar as possible, minimize the clustering of life changes.
  • Anticipate the likely additive effects on stress of a life change you are considering.
  • Maintain positive lifestyle habits related to eating, sleeping, exercising, and playing so that you maintain a reserve of energy and spirit.
  • Be aware of the power of self-talk or interpretation as you face change, especially not of your own making. Change can be an opportunity or a threat, a mountain or a molehill. Keep things in perspective.
  • Control those parts of your life that are controllable.
  • Maintain stable, supportive relationships, especially during times of change or challenge.
  • If perpetually rushed, deliberately slow your pace of talking, walking, eating, driving.
  • Cope constructively, rather than destructively, with temporary periods of upset.
  • Use simple relaxation techniques to stay centered and steady during periods of upheaval or turmoil. Daily 10-20-minute periods of deep relaxation or meditation have been shown to improve health and add to distress-resistance. Here's an example of an even simpler tool, which I call the Six-Second Quieting Response: Draw a long, deep breath; hold for 2 or 3 seconds; exhale with a long breath, slowly and completely; as you exhale, let your jaw and shoulders drop; feel the relaxation flow from your neck and shoulders down your arms to your fingertips.

This can be done with eyes open or closed, with others or alone. This is a surprisingly potent tool when done regularly. Use it twenty or more times per day.

Rapid, accelerating social change is an unavoidable fact of life. Whether you become its victim or beneficiary depends not on the change itself, but on how you deal with it. I encourage you to try some of these approaches

. -- Walt Schafer

Walt Schafer, Sociology and Social Work, is the author of Stress Management for Wellness, ed. 4.


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