Lemming lessons

Stress is all around us. It can be caused by overwork, ill health or bereavement - but don't despair, there is hope, writes Rachelle Thackray
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THE slogan "good morning, lemmings" became legendary when it was painted in huge letters on an M4 bridge and brought traffic to a bemused standstill. It continues to be an apt reminder of that foolish but ubiquitous impulse to push ourselves past the cliff edge to the point of burnout.

Stress is an inescapable part of being human; try as we might to avoid it there will always be situations at home and work, especially those involving change, which induce anxiety, pessimism or downright panic.

Is there any way to lessen stress - permanently?

Authors Cary Cooper and Murray Watts, who have together written Stop the World: Finding a Way Through the Pressures of Life, hardly break new ground when they write: "Coping with stress requires a radical but positive and healing change of lifestyle and attitude ..."

But when they begin to examine exactly how to go about de-stressing yourself, they aim for the league of the best self-help books, those which gently coax without assuming you have inbuilt superhuman abilities to transform yourself overnight.

Cooper, a psychology professor and Watts, a scriptwriter, start by defining stress factors; everything from "hurry-sickness", environmental ill-health and bereavement to family pressure, bureaucracy and low self-image.

Underload can be as stressful as overload, they point out. "Experiments have shown that a person, submerged in a tank of water in darkness, with no stimulus of light, sound, touch or taste, after a brief period of calm will soon become highly stressed. Such a situation can only be endured for about eight hours, but some people are perilously " under-loaded" for years."

A rash of do-it-yourself analysis charts, only slightly more intelligent than those in most women's magazines, threatens to crush the reader's enthusiasm at this point: those with a couple of hours to kill may enjoy ticking all the boxes, but the severely stressed will scream.

Things improve in the book's second section, which considers ways round stress.

"Those going through the worst personal disasters can sympathise with Woody Allen's rewrite of Psalm 23: "Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death - no, I will run through the Valley of the Shadow of Death." However, sometimes our chosen escape routes lead us into far more problematic worlds," write the authors.

Denial, phobias, displacement, projection, rationalisation, fatalism, repression, workaholism and a whole host of other self-destructive behaviours can become unhelpful responses to stress, they write. But what about a new solution? "The greatest unsung virtue of our age is hope," write the authors.

Dr Armard Nicholi, a psychiatry professor at Harvard, writes: "Psychiatrists have long suspected that hope fosters health, both physical and emotional ... hope fosters the will to live and the will to live influences how we respond to medication and how well we recover from illnesses."

The authors don't leave us grabbing at straws, but provide a series of simple exercises to go through. Refreshingly, they promote an outward perspective as well as inner renewal.

"Service may well seem impossible to the stressed person and the idea of helping anyone else may be met with scorn. But a heightened sense of purpose can give meaning to our pain. The build-up of stress, which can so easily destroy, can provide a vantage point from which we can gain a vital new perspective on the rest of our life."

'Stop the World' is published by Hodder and Stoughton at pounds 7.99