IF A BATTERED ECONOMY AND CEASELESS WAR ARE THE STORIES OF THE DECADE, the stress they have produced in the national psyche is the health story of the decade. We are only just starting to focus on the anxiety and mental anguish both have inflicted. Which is why we’ve included a special section on stress in this issue.
One evening early this year I was having dinner with writer David Freed and his wife, psychologist Betsy Bates Freed. The subjects of stress and war came up: the two had just learned that their son was soon shipping to Afghanistan. After he left, David would write, in the Los Angeles Times, “I remind myself that statistics are on my side: Hundreds of thousands of other parents have gone through the emotional hell that my wife and I now face, and most of their kids came back OK. Still, I’m not sure how I’ll cope in the coming months.”
At dinner, the three of us lamented the stress so many people are bearing these days. Talk turned to why a majority of Americans in crisis won’t seek psychological help. Betsy and I thought the answer might have to do with fear and shame: fear of someone telling you that you are at fault, and shame that you weren’t able to solve your problems on your own.
David suggested that therapy isn’t always the answer. While Betsy and I pointed out the benefits, David countered with examples of male friends who had regained their emotional equilibrium on their own. Betsy mentioned a study in which male cancer patients had agreed with both of the following statements: “I should be able to take care of my problems by myself,” and “I would be less depressed if I talked about my problems.” Men and women clearly deal with stress differently. With so many men reeling from the rotten economy—and the long wars—we decided looking at men and stress was worth a story.
The result is the Freeds’ feature, “Why Won’t Men Get Help?” and Betsy’s sidebar about her experiences trying to understand the best way to help male patients at a cancer clinic. (“Was teeth-gritting silence a culturally appropriate and functional coping mechanism, and my concern merely a reflection of female-centered values writ large?” she asks.)
The horrors of battle can leave soldiers with crippling psychological injuries. We’re getting better at treating those aftereffects, writes Brian Mockenhaupt, himself a former Army infantryman, but what if we could find a way to prevent PTSD in the first place? If the Pentagon can better train soldiers to manage stress, everyone might win. “Soldiers who are calm and focused in chaotic moments are less likely to fire out of fear or frustration,” writes Mockenhaupt.
Why is meditation so high on everyone’s list of how to contend with stress? Michael Haederle, a Zen lay monk, recounts his own experience and explores the science of how the practice works on the brain, reporting on a rigorous study undertaken by a group of neurologists.
Elsewhere in the magazine, to fulfill our promise to bring you nationally significant stories with a Western twist, military-hand Brock Brower eavesdrops on a satellite launch from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base; Linda Marsa finds out how scientists in Australia and Southern California are turning bugs into weapons to fight epidemics; and Suzanne Sataline explains a California seminary’s emerging partnership with an Islamic center to develop the nation’s first graduate Muslim seminary. Sataline’s salient questions: Is there a need for such a school? Or is this about money?
And to show we know there is another ocean, we sent San Francisco-based writer Bonnie Tsui to the Atlantic to find out what Rhode Island biologist Scott Landry is doing wrangling whales on the high seas. Talk about stressful.