stress is bogus

Marco Visscher | May 2007 issue
So what is going on when you think you’re experiencing stress?
Angela Patmore: “We know of about 650 definitions of stress, including many opposites. Generally, people who believe they’re suffering from stress are experiencing different emotions, like tension, anxiety, anger or exhaustion, or they have external problems, like overwork or domestic issues, or they refer to normal physical changes like hormonal or blood-pressure fluctuations.”
Don’t you think these problems are real?
“They are real, for sure. What’s not real is a pseudo-medical condition linking them together that we should call ‘stress.’ These are all perfectly normal facts of life in the history of humankind. They form a necessary part of our personal development, since we cannot grow without experiencing negative emotions.”
So “stress” has become the new buzzword.
“Right, it’s the word on everybody’s lips. That’s partly because there’s a huge, unregulated industry of unqualified stress-management consultants who want you to believe you’re suffering from stress and you should go home from work. That’s both simplistic and demoralizing. It means we take away the challenge for a lot of people to face problems and understand how to solve those.”
But seeking professional help means learning how to deal with a crisis, so that should be good news.
“A lot of stress management is tranquilizing people, giving relaxation therapies and massages. I believe that’s harmful, because instead of empowering people, it slows them down, sometimes leading to depression. Also, if you calm people down, they shy away from harsh experiences. You’re reducing their coping skills, making people more cowardly and unwilling to take up new challenges, through which they can grow in life. This is a cruel thing to do to people and society.”
Society? Isn’t stress a personal issue?
“We’re creating a society of people who are afraid of working. Besides, all this talk about stress doesn’t solve underlying workplace problems. It distracts attention from an organization that is run poorly, for instance. If employees are experiencing problems because of that, then we should not make this into a touchy-feely individual issue. You should change the structure within an organization—and get on with it.”
Angela Patmore is the author of The Truth about Stress (Atlantic Books, 2006). In the debate that the book has stirred in Britain, she has been vilified as a “heartless bitch.” Patmore insists she’s only trying to help people who believe they suffer from stress. She has been researching stress at the University of East Anglia with a team of World Health Organization scientists.

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