Thoughts on stress – aspects of the self, the tribe, and the tribal way of life

In a recent conversation I began to speak of some interesting things.  We were talking about how people are so stressed nowadays.  They wondered if people were stressed thousands of years ago.  I went on to say that people in primitive tribes are often the most calm and relaxed people in the world.  They wondered why.  I then went on to say some things:

I stated that, if I recall right, the Frenchman Alexis de Touqeuville came over to the U.S., in 1830-1832, and made some interesting observations which I also have made.  He noticed that Americans were stressed and that people in France were not.  He felt that this was because, in France, they had the aristocracy and in the U.S. they have a democracy.  In France, then, people had someone to look up to.  In the U.S. there is no one to look up to as the “people rule”.  In this way, it placed all the burden on the individual person which eventually creates stress.  In short, democracy predisposes people to stress.  In addition, since democracy is associated with individualism, and the glory of the individual person, it shows that individualism predisposes people to stress.

I also mentioned that, in 1870, Dr. Beard defined a mental condition called Neuresthenia which is basically stress, or so it seems to me.  This became, in a sense, the “American disease”.  One of the cures?  Go to Europe where life is “slower” . . . this started the craze of going to Europe for vacation.  This shows that by the late 1800’s stress was becoming a clinical problem in the U.S. and in which people needed a cure.  Also see my article Thoughts on the ‘uptight American’ – the price of individualism for an earlier observation.


Normally, people think stress is caused by the pressure of things, things being “too fast”, being “out of control”, or something similar.  But I tend to think that the observations described above get more to the heart of the matter.  They describe two qualities:

  1. An absence of something to look up to
  2. An excessive burden upon the self

What we see, then, is an overemphasis on the self caused by an absence of something to look up to.  This places a burden on the self which causes stress.  In this way, we can see that stress is caused by an inadequacy of the self.  The self needs support.  The inability to find this support causes stress.  

What ends up happening is that we try to find “something” to support us, to take the burden, and decrease the stress.  Some ways this happens include:

  • Finding a “substitute support” that only appears to support us but really doesn’t.
  • By a display of great emotion whether it be good or bad, such as anger or blind optimism
  • By a display of great belief, such as that god is helping us
  • By feeling a despair, loss, or something similar
  • By depression or turning away
  • By denial
  • By blanking ones mind

Though these seem to decrease the stress they really only hide it.  I’ve found that behind many peoples actions is a hidden stress.  In this way, many people live with a stress they are not aware of.


I then said that “in many primitive tribes they are calm because the self is not rooted in the person but in the tribe”.  I then went on to say that “what makes people calm is the tribe” or, to put it another way, the absence of the tribe tends to cause stress.  This shows the importance of the “tribe”.

But what is a “tribe”?

A “tribe” is a group of people that have a quality I call “tribalism” (see my article Thoughts on “tribalism” – some aspects and dilemma’s).  One way to describe “tribalism” is that it is some perception, image, or awareness that is unified into a mass or form that one can belongs and relates to.  This “belonging and relating to” creates a calming and relaxing atmosphere.  In this way, “tribalism” creates a security.  In this way, the “tribe” means an awareness of a specific group of people, who have specific qualities, that one belongs to.

I should point out that “tribalism” has many forms.  It isn’t necessarily a tribe as most people think, like a clan or social group.  It can appear as a belief system, an identity, a style, and so on.  Many peoples quest to find “meaning” or worth is a form of “tribalism”.  The lack of “tribalism”, in one form or another, causes a lot of despair in the world.

One could say that, for many people, the seeking of a “tribalism”, of some form or another, is the focus of their life.  That is to say, many people are seeking security by trying to find a form of “tribalism”.

But, in regard to stress, a socially based tribalism plays a large role.  This is because the person, or self, is actually inadequate to deal with the world and life.  This is why the overemphasis on the self causes so many problems, such as stress.  We need the social system as a support.  This shows that stress is rooted in society and social relations.  This also suggests that the character, traditions, beliefs, etc. of a society can cause or promote stress in people.  Accordingly, it can also decrease stress. 

In this way, what we are really speaking of is “social tribalism”, a form of “tribalism” that revolves around society. This consists of a number of things like:

  • The people one belongs to
  • A style or way of being
  • A belief system
  • The conception of the world and how it works
  • Ones association with nature and the greater world
  • The individual person

To me, many primitive or tribal societies has all these united into one, as a unified whole.  In this way, we could speak of this unity as the “tribal way of life”.  Because of this, all these qualities are often so intertwined and connected that one can’t necessarily make a distinction between them.  This unity, in many ways, is one of the powers of the tribal way of life and why the tribe is so important.  It creates a firm and stable base for the individual person.

An important aspect of the tribal way of life is that the person, or self, is not really perceived as a separate entity but as a part of the tribe, as part of the group.  As a result, the self of the person becomes more like a “collective self based in the tribe”.  The sense of individual self, such as we see in large societies, can be almost non-existent or minimal or only appears at certain times.  In reality, its a whole other perception of self than we see in larger societies.  Oftentimes, in larger societies, the individual self is perceived as opposed to the society and the world, as a separate entity removed from it.  This is usually not the case in the tribal way of life.  The self, the tribe, and the world are intertwined.

I should also point out that,as I noted above, the tribal way of life goes beyond the society itself but into belief as well as conception and association with the world.  This makes the tribal way of life more than social in orientation.  In some respects, “society” is really the world and all it contains, including the social group.  As a result, one could say that in the tribal way of life the self is based in both society and the world.


As the society grows, and gets larger, something like a breakdown takes place in the tribal way of life and the sense of a tribe.  There starts to develop a fragmentation of the way of life into separate qualities.  In other words, the unified whole as if splits apart into separate groups and areas of emphasis.  As a result things like these begin to develop as distinct and separate institutions:

  • Organizations
  • Governments
  • Culture
  • Philosophies
  • Belief and religion
  • Concepts and views of the world
  • The family

Its not uncommon that there develops a strong emphasis on one or more of these to the point of being a fixation or obsession.  Examples include the obsession or fixation over religion and nationalism.  What ends up happening is that one, or several, of these become dominant and all the others are neglected.  As a result, the society can not be described as a tribal way of life . . . its no longer unified.  One effect of this is that society, and the people, loses a sense of tribalism and the sense of the tribe falls.  Because of this, the security of the tribe is absent and more burden is put on the person causing more stress.  Also, as part of this, there is accordingly a change in the self.  The self is no longer a “collective self based in the tribe” but becomes more removed from the tribe and separate.  The individual person now stands out as a distinct entity.  The support decreases or disappears completely.  In this way, the support for the individual person tends to fall leading to more stress.

There also develops a tendency to create other forms of “tribalism’s” to compensate for the loss of the tribe.  This seems to be the cause for much of the fixation and obsessions spoken of above.  In other words, the attempt at creating a “tribalism”, after the fall of the tribe, tends to cause a tendency of intense focusing on something specific (such as religion or philosophy) that can take on qualities of a fixation or an obsession.  Despite this, these new forms of “tribalism” tend to not be that effective.  This is because they are only “part of the whole”.  This is why religion, nationalism, and philosophy failed as a source of support.  It works for a while but ends up failing.  It seems that, at least in the U.S., the family became a “new tribe” and many tribal feelings became associated with the family.  Many attitudes surrounding the family were not unlike those seen in primitive tribes.  This gave the family great power and influence (at least as I was brought up).  But even now that’s deteriorating.


I’ve often said that a trait of larger societies is that they are trying to regain the qualities seen in primitive society – the tribal way of life – but can’t seem to achieve it.  It often works for a while but it keeps failing, but they keep trying and trying.  This would suggest that we innately need the tribal way of life but conditions keep disrupting or preventing it.  Ironically enough, a major factor that seems to prevent the appearance of the tribal way of life is overpopulation and large societies . . . too many people.

Copyright by Mike Michelsen

This entry was posted in Modern life and society, Overpopulation and its effects, Primitive society and people, Psychology and psychoanalysis, Relaxation and stress, Society and sociology, Tribal society, tribalism, and the tribal sense and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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