HBO's documentary "One Nation Under Stress" aired Monday night, and one could only wish it had received the same attention that the incongruous baritone of Elizabeth Holmes received when the documentary Theranos "The Inventor" fell week.
The film was presented as a mystery that doctor Sanjay Gupta, a cheerful detective who takes us on a tour of a morgue morgue, disintegrating factories and snow-covered gray forests, is about to resolve: why America's life expectancy decreased by three? consecutive years, the largest decline since 1915-1918, a time of war and pandemic? The most obvious response was the premature death due to alcoholism, opioid addiction and suicide, the triad known as the "death of despair", but why do so many people despair?
The answer, the villain who is making so much despair, is given in the documentary title – imagine Hitchcock calling his masterpiece. Norman or Psycho-is stress, relentless stress that the brain can not handle. With repeated exposure to stress, the most evolved part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, begins to wither, leading to wrong decisions, while the reptilian brain, the amygdala, becomes stronger. Anger rooms thrive in the brain of reptiles, but expressing anger by crushing the grandpa's mug into pieces with a baseball bat does more to feed the reptile than to suffocate the will to destroy.
The community can act as a shock absorber of stress, but social bonds are breaking down only when we need them more, the connection gap filled with social media, a poor substitute for real human contact that increases despair with representations of styles of life that for many are unattainable.
What should we do?
The documentary offers some promising remedies, such as exercises, meditation and baboons, who prefer to take care of other baboons than to fight. But Angela Glass, a Victoria Texas nurse who became addicted to opiates who turned her into a fragile, hollow shell and made her think of suicide, is the transformation hero of the documentary that kills the dragon of stress. We see Angela enter rehab, sobbing and uncertain of recovery, and emerge a year later, a new woman, with rounded face, shiny hair, smile shining. It is a remarkable metamorphosis.
"I thought it was silly when the instructor came in and said just sit in your chair and relax and breathe deep ten times, and in the middle of the way was like wait, this is working …" ~ Angela Glass
In an interview in support of the film, Dr. Gupta was invited to something that everyone can do to help relieve stress. His answer, based on the idea that a great deal of stress is our sense that we have no control over what is going on in our lives, is for each of us to say, "This is my time today." This is my hour, five, ten, fifteen minutes to do something just for me and my brain to strengthen the stress that has weakened.
Perhaps a nation under stress can become a nation by taking ten deep breaths.