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The Positive Effects Of Stress

Wednesday, May 13th, 2009 The Positive Effects Of Stress

Contradictory news reports regarding health issues in general. Yet another one as reported by the Daily Mail’s Marianne Power (11 05 09). Apparently stress is now good for you, its ‘endemic’; it has been argued that one in four workers suffer with the condition.

More crucially there are 60% of working days lost due to the affects of stress related disorders according to the European Agency For Safety and Health At Work. In view of the current economic climate, job security fears and property values in decline, the problem is only going to become even worse.

Yet there is one person in Britain who is not stressed. In fact, she claims ‘stress’ doesn’t even exist, but is an elaborate sham promoted by a multi-million-pound stress management industry.‘Stress is an engineering term to describe the force brought to bear on an object. Now it’s being applied to any human emotion to frighten people witless and sell them therapy and products,’ says Angela Patmore, author of The Truth About Stress and a former research fellow investigating stress at the University of East Anglia.

‘The stress management industry is trying to medicalise the human condition and sell us a cure. Rather than confront our problems and overcome them, we are being turned into sufferers.’ Even stress experts themselves concede that a huge industry has been spawned by it - and that stress is being over-diagnosed and treated by unscrupulous practitioners who may not even be qualified. So have we been conned by Stress Inc into thinking we are ill when, in fact, we just need to get on with things?

The word ‘stress’ was first used in a medical context in the 1930s by an Austrian endocrinologist, Hans Seyle, who tortured animals to see the effect it would have on their bodies. He identified three stages of reaction - alarm, resistance and exhaustion - which he called the stress response.

There is no doubt that stress is bad for our bodies, says Professor Stephen Bloom, an expert in stress at Imperial College. ‘From our heart to our immune system, stress has a real physical effect. ‘For example, research shows that after the death of a spouse, the surviving partner has a shortened life expectancy, and an increased chance of dying in the six months after bereavement. This is almost certainly because of stress.’ it can also stunt the growth of children, he adds.

But here is the root of the problem. The stress industry defines ‘stress’ as that heart-pumping, adrenaline rush you get when under pressure. But experts such as Professor Bloom and Angela Patmore say they’re wrong: this kind of pressure doesn’t make you ill - it may actually be good for you.

In addition it is argued that it is social stress that unmakes you ill as well as everyday occurrences that grind you down and you are powerless to change. An example she offers is that you are living with your-mother-in-law and you hate it. ‘At first you fight your situation, and then you become resigned. You become anxious and depressed, and then your body, in effect, gives up - your immune system is impaired, you develop a greater tendency to blood clots, your wound healing is impaired. It’s a kind of biological death wish.’

Pat more adds: ‘Stress researchers are fond of using the term “stress” to mean the fight-or flight survival mechanism.

‘But when they refer to “long-term stress”, they are really talking about a different biological reaction called “learned helplessness”, which is when we don’t confront our problems and simply give up. This causes the brain to release natural opiates to numb the pain but also shuts off the immune system.’

Significantly, after months or years of chronic stress, the adrenal glands become fatigued from overwork and your hormone levels plummet, leading to exhaustion and depression. It can even be fatal.

In contrast, the high-octane periods of pressure we’ve all come to think of as ‘stresses are actually healthy. ‘The latest research on anti-ageing indicates that when we are busy, the body releases heatshock proteins that repair cells and prolong life,’ says Patmore.

Essentially, she explains that part of the difficulty is the fact that there are so many variations and interpretations. Futhermore there has been a huge fold increase in the growth of the stress industry. there are now over 15m sites dedicated to two million ‘accredited’ stress practitioners in Britain alone, selling us anything from hormone tests to squeezy massage balls to treat a condition that has no agreed medical definition. No aspect of modern life now seems safe from this diagnostic plague.’

Schoolchildren are said to be under intolerable pressures because of exams and tests; in the workplace, hard work and management expectations are painted as harmful to the mental well-being of staff.

But in truth, we work shorter hours and enjoy greater affluence than our forebears, yet we are now encouraged to believe that a heightened emotional response to anything - from extra work to having one’s lawnmower stolen - is bad for our health.

Patmore says: ‘Everyone has worries, but stress awareness is making people believe these are abnormal symptoms that need treating. It makes people feel they are not in charge of their lives.

‘For the more unscrupulous members of the stress industry, this is mission accomplished: the industry creates the condition, then sells “calmdowns” to cure it.’

Indeed, the industry has increased 800 per cent in recent years, according to Patmore, and become a lucrative money-spinner - especially in the workplace: ‘Stress managers can charge £2,000 for their courses, and anyone can set themselves up as one. I think hairdressers are more regulated than the stress management industry.’

Liz Tucker, a specialist counsellor for 15 years, agrees that the stress industry has become uncontrollable.

‘Last year, at a trade show, I saw a man selling blue plastic dolphins that he said contained the “spirit of the sea”. You had to rub the dolphins on your temples to reduce stress. It was ridiculous. Stress counselling has become like cosmetic surgery — a lot of people have it who don’t need it. We’ve wrongly turned stress into a disease from which we need to be cured. What most people understand alive.

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