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The Stress of Inequality and its Powerful Effect on Health

Saturday, March 12, 2011 by: Mitchell Rabin
Tags: inequality, health, health news

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We know that there are many spokes in the wheel of wellness and ways to achieve it, the way to be it, requires that we be the hub of many of them. Our lifestyle choices of healthy food, water, exercise and sleep are paramount. Other spokes of course include our smiling, laughing, enjoying humor in general and humor in the moment. It includes our social lives, friends, family and good relationships. It includes managing stress, expressing feeling, caring and being authentic.

A big spoke of wellness is having meaning in one's life and the sense that one is contributing to the world and in some way making a difference in the lives of family members, friends or the Earth Herself, in some cases, protecting it from the excesses of other humans! The base of wellness, at the end of it all, has so much to do with attitude. We take these truths to be self-evident!

Research has shown us something rather remarkable: the stress that comes from inequality in our society, in particular from economic inequality, may have more of an effect on our overall health than any other single factor. And conversely, in those societies in which economic equality is greater, in effect a larger middle class, they experience far greater health, happiness, longevity and well-being. Where there is less disparity between rich and poor, there is also a proportionate reduction in violence, teenage pregnancy, depression, anxiety, suicide and homicide.

We would all imagine that economic inequality would certainly be a factor among many, one of those spokes in the wheel, but the research of Richard Wilkinson, professor emeritus at University of Nottingham Medical School and Kate Pickett, professor of epidemiology at University of York, uncovered through decades of research, indicates that the stress due to economic inequality was actually a primary cause of illness.

The type of health-care in the society was secondary as was even lifestyle choices, important as they obviously are. It didn't matter if the health care was privately administered, in a wealthy country or not, single-payer or otherwise. This is very interesting for lots of reasons, but no less because of our society's anxiety about the health care issue, and according to Wilkinson and Pickett, we're missing the boat. Even out the economic disparity between rich and poor and much of the health care issue is already solved.

Let's deconstruct this a bit. Why would this single factor of economic disparity be so powerful a spoke? It ends up to be a very human phenomenon. The materially wealthy of a given community or nation tend to look down and pass judgment on the economically poor, sneering either verbally or non-verbally. There's a subtext, something to the effect of "Why can't these people get themselves together, always living off of hand-outs..." There's a sense of their own superiority and in contrast, the poor's inferiority. What the comprehensive research conducted by Wilkinson and Pickett suggests is that this judgment, critical sense and attitude has a debilitating, anxiety-producing effect, evoking questions of self-image, self-worth and even identity.

We may not think of it, but over time, these psychological and emotional stresses cause significant inner conflict, self-doubt and have a highly corrosive effect on health. One of the spokes of the wheel that gets heavily challenged, if not dashed, is hope for a positive future. Hope and optimism are keys to happiness, health and well-being and we all know that in the core of our gut. The judgment made rather systemically and over time, has this eroding effect across these domains. Walking around feeling 'lesser' does not make for a sound basis for a good and healthy lifestyle.

In their book, The Spirit Level, by Wilkinson and Pickett, surveyed countries around the world as well as all 50 states of the U.S. Those societies such as in Japan and Norway, where the middle class is prominent and the pendulum swing from excessively wealthy to poor was far less, has the greatest health, longevity, well-being and least anxiety and depression.

Nor does it matter if the overall society's poor are better off than another society's poor. For instance, poverty in the Philippines may be living in a cardboard box but in the U.S., a person may have a car or two and air-conditioning in their home but still be considered by U.S. standards, economically poor. The judgment and attitude of the better off toward the lesser off is what, at the end of the day, causes, the research shows, the greatest harm in health physically and emotionally.

Infant mortality rates are higher in the countries with the greatest inequality, and lower in the more equal countries, and this same measure occurs in state to state right here at home in the U.S. So the tyranny of judgment within one's own society is what matters, not some objective measure of what equates to wealth or poverty.

By so many measures, the U.S. is considered the richest nation in the world, yet we have per capita, shorter life spans, more mental illness, violence, obesity and teenage pregnancy, not to mention more people in prison per capita than any other first world nation, so states the research of Wilkinson and Pickett.

We would all naturally assume that a more economically equal society would yield many benefits in health, happiness, well-being and longevity. But we might not have assumed that its opposite would have this level of debilitating effect on a nation's overall health or that the wealthy also suffer comparably. The suffering on all levels goes both ways.

It suggests at least a few things. One is just how profound are the effects of stress in our bodies, minds and emotions. One bout of anger can stress the liver and negate the value of one's morning's dose of Vitamin C all in one temper-filled, fiery minute. A moment of anxiety, based on a real threat or an imagined one, can cause the heart to race and the blood pressure to skyrocket. This is the effect of the mind and emotions on the body in an instant.

We see how profound the effect of other's points of view and judgments are on our lives, health, mental balance and even longevity. We prefer to minimize these and shrug them off - and to some extent we succeed - but the research indicates that there is a stress in what British biologist Rupert Sheldrake refers to as the "morphogenetic field" that remains essentially invisibly pervasive. I see this show up in my biofeedback work in Energy Medicine - a person and her body exists in a context of a field of influences, and these show up on the screen as well and it's hard to differentiate between what is 'one' and what is the field. What's curious is that the suffering is among the rich as well as the poor - their health and well-being are jeopardized too!

Another point that emerges from the research of these social epidemiologists is how intrinsically linked we are to one another. While we may take good care of our own individual health, we continue to be influenced by the 'energy in the field' of where we live and with whom we are surrounded. This gives even more credence to that old, spiritual adage which invites us to "keep good company." It also invites us to do what we can individually and as part of a community or group to establish an economic environment in which greater economic equality is possible because we now know that this is a key to success in a number of health and social parameters.

It is of course obvious to those of us who embrace a healthy lifestyle that these choices definitely serve our health, well-being and potential longevity. Social epidemiological research, as with medical research, generates statistics based on a large sampling of a population, and as such does not account for a more refined series of healthy lifestyle choices that many of us make. But our society in particular as a whole, and societies in general at large, the stress caused by economic inequality needs to be reckoned with, and these statistics could forge a whole new way to shape political thinking, ideology and legislative choices to support health, happiness and well-being in our society.

While the news is alarming about how societies such as ours, where the top 2 percent own some 50 percent of the world's material wealth and the middle class is faltering with every passing season, we now know about some primary causes of stress on the hub connecting all the spokes. We can do our part to establish a more equal, healthier, happier, truly more balanced society. It makes common sense and now there is the research that corroborates our instincts and intuitions.

The other part of the good news is that there is a growing movement across the country and beyond involving what is called "The New Economics" which encourages local commerce, local food-growing, buying from local farmers and ma and pa stores, all of which has the effect of 'equalizing.' The work of David Korten in the U.S. (www.livingeconomies.org) ,Stewart Wallis in London (The New Economics Institute) and others, are pioneering the building of local economies that are more just, ethical and ultimately equalizing, which reduces stress on the whole system, including our collective and individual nervous systems and or course, improves our health, happiness, humor and well-being. There is hope, and it is based on our own understandings, attitudes and actions. We still want to eat healthily, consciously, and take good care of ourselves, while making efforts to build local, equitable economies and growing our own.

Interviews with some leaders in this area, including with Richard Wilkinson can be heard at: (www.abetterworld.net) in the radio archive.

About the author:
Mitchell Jay Rabin, M.A., L.AC. is an international speaker, teacher, coach, entrepreneur and therapist with a background in Holistic Psychology, Acupuncture, bio-feedback and Stress Management in NYC. With an orientation toward eco-psychology, NLP, Mind-Body Therapy, Therapeutic Theater/Family Constellations, sex counseling and Energy Medicine, his work with clients is designed to empower and vitalize through insight and making wise lifestyle choices across the board. From thinking to nutrition, from the intimacy of relationship to Right Livelihood and Spiritual Activism, Mitchell has helped to facilitate change, inspiration and empowerment in his clients around the world.

Mitchell has been hosting A Better World TV show in NYC since 1993 and A Better World Radio since 2006. For more, go to: www.abetterworld.tv

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