07/11/2014 10:42 am ET | Updated Sep 10, 2014

What Life in Chicago and Nairobi Taught Me About Stress

NPR News has been doing an awesome series on stress in America. (Check it out, here.)

It's been particularly interesting for me to listen to right now because my own level of stress is the lowest it's been in years. Having spent time in some of the most stressful places on earth, I now live with my family in an incredibly peaceful setting. I feel lucky and grateful to be in such a good place and it's especially humbling to consider that good fortune in the context of an American society that seems almost perfectly engineered to stress out its citizenry.

As a nation of immigrants and migrants, we're a people -- voluntarily or involuntarily -- separated from our support systems and families of origin. And we've built that dynamic into our national identity: we move from place to place, in pursuit of education and opportunity, leaving behind what is familiar.

Our minimal social safety net, along with our expensive, largely private health care system and the absence of any kind of readily available public child care means that many of us face life's most daunting tasks -- those of raising children and caring for the sick -- alone. We're stressed by how much it all costs, how much of our energy it requires and how easily the arrangements we do make can fall apart because our circumstances allow us so little room for error.

I saw this dynamic played out, time and time again, in Chicago, where lives lived in neighborhoods with little economic infrastructure sometimes collapse under a cascade of bad luck and bad choices. I remember one mom, enrolled in a welfare-to-work program I was writing about, who left her baby with a relative while she took job-skill training classes. The elderly caregiver accidentally burned the baby with too-hot bath water, setting off a series of escalating catastrophes. First, the young woman got kicked out of the training program for a series of unexcused absences while caring for her injured son. Then, she lost some of her benefits because she was no longer taking the classes. From there, things just got worse.

Many of the women I wrote about in the Mathare and Kibera slums of Nairobi had similar stories, though they had access to even fewer basic resources. Having left behind their rural villages for the dim promise of urban prosperity, they had little to fall back on when trouble arose. And trouble always arose. Families migrating to cities around the globe find themselves facing this same kind of "American" stress: the boot-kick to the gut you get when you can't quite manage to pull yourself up by the bootstrap.

Scientists are only now coming to realize the impact that all of this has on us: the way one crisis exhausts us, then leaves us vulnerable to making mistakes that lead to further crises. We understand, increasingly, that the so-called cycle of poverty is, at least in part, a physical phenomenon, a manifestation of stress.

Weirdly, our bodies don't seem to be particularly good at making distinctions between the different types and levels of stress. So the millionaire, cash-poor and slightly over-extended after the purchase of another vacation home, experiences some of the same physical and mental symptoms as the single, working mom who is scraping together rent money and falling behind on her utility bills. Morally, ethically, and intellectually, this is, of course, preposterous. But the anxiously elevated heartbeats keeping each of them awake at night don't have moral, ethical and intellectual dimensions. We have to add those elements, consciously using our brains to consider them. We count on the millionaire to have enough self-awareness to recognize that his worries are not the stuff of life and death, while we apply our compassion to policy measures, like earned income tax credits and the low income home energy assistance program, meant to give a helping hand to the struggling mom.

I wonder, though, if our brains can be counted on to deliver self-awareness and compassion in reliable doses.

Keeping up, online and through my networks of friends, with recent events in both nearby Chicago and far-away Kenya, I have frequent reality checks on just how good I have it, here in a prosperous Wisconsin small town. And, even still, I find myself thinking it "stressful" to have kids playing in simultaneous Little League games in two different parks. Or to have to take a conference call during an afternoon otherwise devoted to hanging out with my kids. I should, of course, know better and, yes, I am frequently appalled by my own selfishness.

The opportunities of my life have afforded me tremendous perspective on my own privilege, which, while not exactly the same thing as wisdom - still very much searching for that, alas -- is a great means for examining and dealing with my own stress.

First and foremost, I know enough to take a step back and acknowledge that I have never, ever had it "hard." Probably never will. I am in no way more or less deserving of the lucky breaks that have put me in this position, but I am here, nonetheless.

Second, though my feelings of stress are real -- I have a business to run and children to raise, and responsibilities that have consequences -- so, too, are the tools I have to deal with them. There's no merit in suffering when I can use the resources at my disposal to make things easier. If it's within my means to make a problem go away, by hiring help or streamlining a process, I do. I am learning to let go of the guilt associated with outsourcing and self-care.

Third and finally, I am rebuilding the village that my modern lifestyle had dismantled. I don't live near my parents or grandparents; I don't have siblings as a part of my daily life. But I have friends and neighbors from across the generations who can offer their wisdom, insight and support when I need it. They've helped me though the polar vortex, a couple of tornado warnings and any number of other near-disasters of my own making.

There's no question that life is stressful, but, for most of us lucky enough to be reading here, our stresses are not the life-and-death struggles of urban war zones and developing world slums. We worry about our health, that of our family, about money and our kids' futures. But we don't have to let these worries isolate us. We can find, even within our darkest troubles, opportunities to connect with one another.

And when we have done that, when we find ourselves with a moment to breathe a little easier, perhaps we can set ourselves to the task of making the world just a little bit better for those who are not so lucky.