Feeling stressed? Pull yourself together

There's no such thing as 'stress', argues Angela Patmore – in fact, a bit of pressure can be good for us. So why have we become obsessed with curing it?

Feeling "stressed"? Problems everywhere you look? Stuck in the traffic again and late for work? Congratulations – you're human. There's nothing abnormal about having problems or a lot to do. They are not clinical conditions. Yet when we say we are "stressed" we assume that we are suffering from some medical malaise about which there is huge scientific evidence and a lot of fear. Indeed, if you go to your GP and tell him about these feelings, he might even give you a sick note.

Why does the term "stress" spring to mind every time you are animated, nervous, hurried, tense, angry, worried or scared? It may interest you to know that in all of the scientific research there is no identifiable condition called "stress". The same word is used to refer to more than 650 quite different things, including most human emotions. Anxiety, annoyance and frustration may not be pleasant, but they are perfectly normal. Rushing about trying to survive is par for the course too – even shrews do it. So why do we think, when we are in a hurry or our emotions are aroused, that these are harmful, or that we have a condition called "stress"? Well, it's because we are constantly being told by the purveyors of "calm-down" products that if we are not calm, there is something wrong with us.

The powerful multimillion-pound stress management industry has many researchers in its pay and, unfortunately, a lot of general practitioners on side as well, handing out potentially lethal drugs for the condition. Many overworked GPs believe they are suffering from "stress" themselves and will write sick notes without bothering to examine what it actually means in the clinical literature. Correct treatment depends on correct diagnosis. Sick notes should refer to illnesses. And, according to the Health and Safety Executive, "stress" is not an illness.

The calm-down industry spreads what it calls "stress awareness", telling us to look out for signs and symptoms (any physical feeling other than being calm), so that it can peddle tranquillity, workplace audits and interventions. We are given potted endocrinology lessons and told a lot of alarmist pseudo-medical twaddle about "fight or flight", hormonal secretions and bodily "symptoms".

Everybody has problems and worries, and most of us work hard. We may have sleepless nights and feel bad. But that doesn't mean we need drugs and relaxation courses to get us through the day. The constant bombardment of misinformation by the calm-down industry tells us that our normal emotions and physiological reactions are a medical condition. This plays on our minds. It makes us genuinely anxious and hypervigilant (over-alert), and we start to worry about our health. We fear we may fall apart. For the more unscrupulous members of the stress industry, this is mission accomplished.

The industry has 15 million websites and more than 2 million accredited practitioners. These people are not government regulated, they don't have to be qualified, and a lot of them have never even seen the scientific research.

I have seen the research, and studied it very carefully. Working with scientists at the University of East Anglia's Centre for Environmental Risk, I analysed hundreds of studies. The term "stress", when borrowed from engineering and applied to biology, is completely bogus. In human beings, "stress" can be applied by researchers to almost any emotion (anger, despair, worry, tension, etc). It can also be applied to physical measures such as temperature, hormonal patterning or blood pressure.

Why should we think emotions are unhealthy, or that our body's defence reactions are designed to kill us? Extravagant claims are made by stress experts about the health risks of arousal, though these are not generally supported even by their own research evidence. The fight-or-flight response, for example, doesn't cause disease – why should it? It is a survival mechanism. Being in the fast lane doesn't cause disease either. On the contrary, anti-ageing research shows that pressure is good for you and enables your life-preserving heat shock proteins to keep you in good repair by a process known as hormesis.

The real dangers to health lie elsewhere. Stress management can kill. Home Office statistics for 1964 to 2004 show that minor tranquillisers or benzodiazepines were involved in 17,000 deaths. Kava kava, a herbal "stress" remedy, was withdrawn after reported deaths from liver damage. Ritalin, prescribed to control childhood over-activity and relieve parents' "stress", has caused fatalities.

Since I first began studying stress management, I've been warning of its dangers. I had my critics. One reviewer wrote that I was widely regarded "as a heartless bitch". I am the opposite of heartless. I have seen enough evidence to convince me that the stress management industry is harming people.

The other, quite genuine danger to health is that stress management makes people wary of arousal. If your problems don't get you exercised and you don't face up to them but instead try to escape from unpleasant reality, then there really is something wrong with you. Giving up, the scientific term for which is "learned helplessness", by itself can kill, and kill quickly. Such behaviour causes the brain to release natural opiates to numb the pain but it also shuts off the immune system. When stress researchers refer to "long-term stress", they are really talking about helplessness, failure to address threats and this biological death wish.

My book is intended to help people who have been disabled in this way. Unilever's head of occupational health, Dr John Cooper, was kind enough to say: "This book should be compulsory reading for doctors, HR managers, CEOs, in fact pretty well everyone in the corporate world."

The evidence it presents is clear: there's no need to fear natural emotions and reactions. Our ancestors didn't. They embraced challenges and forced themselves to face up to fears and pressures, to feel the fear and do it anyway. The idea of being protected from reality would have struck them as the fastest means to make cowards of us all. Frankly, they must think we're a sad lot.

Angela Patmore is a former UEA research fellow. Her book, The Truth About Stress, was shortlisted for the Mind Book of the Year Award 2007

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