Science Interviews

Interview

Wed, 25th May 2016

Why do some people get more stressed?

Professor Peter Kinderman, British Psychological Society and University of Liverpool

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Some find an event stressful, other just feel it as pressure but why do we Feeling stressedexperience the same situation differently? Peter Kinderman believes it's to do with psychosocial factors, as he explained to Graihagh Jackson...

Peter - Well typically the conventional, I suppose, disease model of psychiatry says that when somebody is depressed, or when somebody is anxious, or when somebody has difficulties in their relationships, it stems from a flaw within the individual. But I think we know that poverty, and abuse, bullying, negative life experiences and, also, growing up in societies or within communities which are socially unequal is highly likely to lead to mental health problems.

Graihagh - Meet Peter Kinderman

Peter - Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Liverpool and I’m currently President of the British Psychological Society.

One of the things we know is that unequal societies are nearly always worse and equal societies are nearly always better. So, in nearly every measurable way, people growing up in unequal societies do worse.  There are more social problems, such as crime and social disorder in unequal societies relative to equal societies, when you take into account the absolute wealth of the nations. Of course, wealthy countries have more material possessions so they can buy goods, they can buy hospitals, they can buy the time of police officers and so forth, they can buy roads but, given the absolute wealth of nations, those nations that are more equal, have lower levels of social disorder, higher levels of personal happiness, and lower levels of mental health problems, yes.

Graihagh - Why is this though? Because as Peter has highlighted, living in a developed country means you have access to healthcare, education and welfare…

Peter - One of the things for me as a psychologist that comes across is that the phenomenon of social comparisons seems to be very important. What human beings seem to do is they don’t necessarily seem to sit down and think in some objective terms, how is my life going. They compare themselves to other people. We’re inherently social animals so our sense of who we are, and how we’re doing, and our sense of optimism for the future seems to be implicitly tied in with how we’re doing compared to other people, or how we’re doing compared to how we should be doing.

Graihagh - Is that necessarily a bad thing?

Peter - Well I was talking about this with a colleague and we were talking about how wonderful little animals human beings are and how we strive to improve our living conditions by manipulating our environment. So we were sort of speculating about how it’s difficult for human beings to feel satisfied because we’re driven to always improve. And you could imagine how it would be evolutionarily extremely advantageous to humans to sit around after a hunting gathering expedition, eating fruits and vegetables, and then think I wonder if we could do things a little differently, and if you were going to do things differently, you have to recognise that there’s something imperfect about the situation that you see yourself in. So out of that comes a sort of striving, which is good, and I think that makes us supremely creative but I guess there’s always the danger of it leading to some negative emotions as well.

Graihagh - Like what?

Peter - There’s a danger of thinking it’s not right, it’s not good. And I think if we do that too much, if we do that to excess, if we only spot the negatives, then I think we can become either anxious or depressed or have other sorts of psychological problems. And then you’ve got to think of why. I think it’s because when you grow up in straight and social circumstances, when terrible things happen to you or when you grow up in unequal societies, it has an impact on the sense that you make of who you are, what your chances in life are, whether you are a person who can command respect, and make positive changes in the world. And if you conclude, quite reasonably, on the basis of your experience in life that the chances that you have in life are a little bit limited, that’s a profoundly depressing, profoundly disempowering experience.

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