The most stressful time of day is apparently 7.23 am – but, for many, life is a constant roiling churn. Here are a few small changes that would help.
I’ve been trying to work out what the most stressful moment of my day is and I think I’ve got it: 5.38am, or thereabouts. That’s when I realise that, having been woken by the dog (erratic, ancient) sometime between 3am and 4am, none of my getting-back-to-sleep strategies are going to work and instead turn to catastrophising about the day ahead, reminding myself insomnia is probably worse than smoking, sitting down and snorting asbestos combined.
The question arose because according to what I suppose we could call research (a survey commissioned by Rescue Remedy, the flower-based potion for modern malaises), 7.23am is the “most stressful” time of the day. I get it. Bad things tend to happen around then: verticality, showering and dressing for starters. If you are a parent, you may also be upbraided for human rights violations in the fields of “breakfast”, “teeth” or “shoes”. Possibly a child will pull a dog-eared letter out of a book bag with the triumphant air of a conjurer with a rabbit, informing you they need to come in this morning dressed as Pope Pius VII and bring a scale model of the Sistine Chapel made of “widely recyclable materials only, please”. If you’re commuting, any number of exciting developments are likely to be poised to ruin your day and, if you’re Mark Wahlberg, you’re an hour and 23 minutes into your shower and have to start playing golf in seven minutes.
But I’m not convinced 7.23am is really the worst. For one thing, that seems likely to be a transitory stress peak – the kind you get through by gritting your teeth (possibly trying not to crush the pipette delivering flower essences into your gullet as you do) and reminding yourself that later you’ll be able to snatch a few moments to quietly stare into space and regret your life choices. But it’s more that the real problem with stress is the relentless way it accumulates, like heavy metal in your blood; the way it keeps coming back to deliver a top up. After the 5.38am witching hour, I have multiple sweaty, chest-tightening peaks throughout the day. It’s a cruise ship buffet of cortisol and my life is laughably low-stress, so surely everyone feels like this? Maybe there wasn’t a tick box on the survey for: “It’s a constant roiling churn – please help.”
The thing is, we’re still evolutionarily maladapted to deal with the world in which we find ourselves. None of our fight-or-flight stuff is turning out to be particularly helpful for dealing with constant aggressive digital stimuli, the melting Antarctic, zoonotic bird flu, flesh-eating opioids, alien balloons et al. We’re reporting higher levels of stress all the time: according to Ipsos research last year, 60% of participants across 34 countries report that they have felt stressed “to the point where they felt like they could not cope or deal with things at least once in the past year”. Women, people under 35 and on lower incomes suffered worse, unsurprisingly.
Goodness knows what can be done about the big stuff while we wait for the human central nervous system to catch up with the 21st century, or for one of the smörgåsbord of potential catastrophes to return us to calm, pre-agrarian living. But in terms of getting us through those stress crunch points in the day, there are so many little things that would help. Put phone chargers, public toilets and water fountains everywhere, for a start. Require all customer service helplines to give you £10 for every minute you wait and let you choose your hold music: birdsong, Bach, death metal, or Kate Winslet saying “Everything’s going to be amazing – you’ve got this” . Don’t just renationalise public transport – nationalise wifi, too, and liberate us from router-based suffering. Introduce a compulsory module on Stem degrees called “revolutionising printers” and one on arts degrees called “improving autocorrect”. Ban the sale of sticky tape that splits into multiple tiny unmanageable ends, ditto aluminium foil. Ah, I feel calmer already.
By Emma Beddington a Guardian columnist