I got asked by the Daily Mail to comment on their headline about 360,000 people being “trapped” in their first homes by the decline in property values. It’s similar to people who simply can’t afford to buy, who are “doomed” to rent property all their lives.
The journalist first of all asked me why all this was so stressful, why people got so upset about it and what it might do to people.
Basically, it is because people respond to a perceived threat by “fight or flight”.
That works when you’re a hunter-gatherer. Your body releases adrenalin and other chemicals, your blood clots quicker and your pain threshold goes up in case you are hurt, your heart beats faster and sugar is released into the blood to give you energy and oxygen etc. so you are ready to run or fight better etc. And you leg it or you fight it off. An hour or so later, your body calms down, it releases other chemicals to counteract the adrenaline etc., your blood pressure returns to normal, your heart slows, you might feel sleepy, you might feel cold because you’ve been sweating ready to dump heat quickly etc.
But if you can’t run away from the house (or whatever the pressure of modern life is) and you don’t have anybody to fight (you can punch out the bank manager, but that’s not going to do much good) what happens? The “threat” chemicals stay in the system.
So nowadays you have the pressure the next day, and the next, and the next week, month and year. The human body isn’t designed to deal with that. So our body gets bathed with chemicals that aren’t supposed to be there for more than an hour or two – so we end up with “modern” epidemics, heart disease, lowered resistance to disease etc. and start to use unsuitable coping strategies, like drink and drugs.
The body was designed for one environment, it now operates in another one.
You can say, “in Europe they don’t have the obsession with buying homes that we have in the UK, so what’s the problem”. People ought not to get upset about it.
And you can say that people are unfortunate. For example, one couple the Mail talked to had bought the house when they had one child, now had two and wanted a third, but the house wasn’t big enough.
The thing is, whatever way you look at it, life happens! You don’t get the chance to say – “hey, this isn’t working out the way I wanted, can I start over”, you have to get on with it from where you are. And the fact that the automatic systems we have don’t always help us is the way it is, we can’t suddenly decide that logically we shouldn’t get upset and not do so.
People tend to feel stressed, and suffer the consequences of that stress such as high blood pressure etc. when they have an ongoing situation that they perceive as stressful.
So, the journalist wanted to know, what can people do?
Well, the fact is that it is about perceived threat. When the boss moans, you feel trapped in a house, life isn’t the way you want, you can perceive it as a threat – and go for flight or fight. You can also try to perceive it as part of life, where you don’t actually have to run away or fight, and so prevent that whole cycle starting.
How can you perceive it as not so much of a threat? Well, one way is to think about whether what you’re facing is actually a real issue, or is just that things aren’t quite the way you planned them. You bought the house, it was expected to go up in value, it didn’t. OK, is that a major disaster (and even if it is, that’s the way it is), or is it just that you had an expectation that has been disappointed?
Another way is to remember what previous generations faced. Those who grew up during and just after the last war lived through rationing. People who owned houses (a minority) quite often had them destroyed through bombing. There wasn’t the petrol for people to have cars and very few had washing machines or fridges, let alone dishwashers, flat screen TVs and quadraphonic sound. If your great grandparents brought up 7 children in a two bed-roomed house and your grandparents weren’t scarred for life by it, might you be able to cope with four children in a three bed-roomed house?
You can look at what is important, your children, your health etc. If you talk to, for example, a wounded war veteran from Iraq or Afghanistan you often find they don’t complain about missing limbs, blindness, severe disfigurement. They are too busy saying “I was lucky, some of my mates died”. It sounds like something from a Disney film, but there is a lot of evidence that happiness, contentment, joy in life etc. are more linked to attitude than to possessions or even health. There is good evidence that there are people in the slums of India (who really are poor), people who are terminally ill, in great pain or who have suffered financial disaster who are actually calmer, more happy and more ready to help other than a lot of people who focus on the things they haven’t got, although those latter people have health, relative wealth and nothing has really gone wrong. Similarly, there are people who won the lottery and have millions who a year later are suicidal.
That’s not to make light of problems, it is horrible to feel trapped, to be facing financial problems, emotional problems etc. But the thing is, life happens. You can feel trapped, and be frustrated that you have nothing to fight or run from.
You can also try your best to deal with it, and some of the ways to do that are to realise that the flight or fight response is tied to perception, not to reality.