It's a modern epidemic, but suppressing the symptoms is tantamount to throwing away nature's burglar alarm
IN THE Nineties we are so wedded to the notion of constant, everyday, barely tolerable stress that it is even cropping up in cartoon format. Stressed Eric, the latest animated offering for adults, features an unfortunate fortysomething executive whose prayer every day just before the alarm clock rings is "please don't let it be morning". A single parent, Stressed Eric has to cope not only with the boss from hell but also his underachieving children and dipsomaniac au pair. As his stress levels rise and rise, they are reflected in a throbbing blood vessel that beats manically in his temple.

It seems there are plenty of Stressed Erics (and Stressed Ericas) out there. Figures published last week show that the growth in worldwide sales of central nervous system drugs - mainly anti-depressants - outstripped all other types of prescription drugs in the year to February 1998; there have been particularly sharp rises in the UK and US. Meanwhile, soothing volumes such as The Little Book of Calm are also leaping off the shelves. The Little Book of Calm remains at the top of the British best-sellers' list with sales of more than 700,000 copies.

Carl Gorham, the creator of Stressed Eric, says he is reflecting the mood of the moment. "Nowadays, everyone uses the word 'stressed' a million times a day. You read about stress gurus and stress handbooks. It seems a Nineties thing. Ten years ago, nobody used the word, now it's the most overused word in the vocabulary." Stressed Eric looks set to become cult viewing; but should we be allowing stress to become a cult in its own right?

STRESS is frequently described as an epidemic of modern times. A few decades ago it was unknown; the word in its current sense has only been in use for the past 30 years. Stress is blamed for physical and mental illness, as well as for costing industry millions in lost working time. But now, for the first time, academics, medics and psychologists are suggesting that it is time to reappraise the notion of what "stress" consists of and what its effects are. According to Angela Patmore, author of a report entitled Killing the Messenger: the Pathologising of the Stress Response, commissioned by the University of East Anglia, "the 'stress-as- disease' concept is bogus and misleading". And, she adds, "current 'stress management' policy and practice in the workplace may be useless and even disabling". She is organising a conference in June in an attempt to debunk some of the myths surrounding "stress".

One reason why we all claim to be "stressed", she says, is that the term is used to describe the effects of anything from being in a serious car crash to breaking a fingernail. "It is a marshmallow term, and this lack of definition is part of the problem. People imagine that there must be some kind of general scientific agreement about what constitutes 'stress' but there isn't. It has led to a huge volume of confusing and confused research." Much of the approach to stress stems from experiments conducted on rats 30 years ago by Hans Selye, an American endocrinologist. His rats, when tormented, became ill. Because of this, attempts are made to defuse the stress response through therapies and counselling or drugs. But, argues Angela Patmore, this research has been misinterpreted. What made the rats ill, she says, was not the stress inflicted on them in itself. "Selye himself noticed something that is often overlooked - that his rats, seeing no escape from the laboratory, resigned themselves to their fate and stopped struggling. More modern and more rigorous research has established beyond all reasonable doubt that helplessness and resignation undermine the immune system."

This kind of passive response is known as "learned helplessness". "Learned helplessness is anaesthetic, and when you tranquillise people they are far less likely to help themselves," says Angela Patmore. So, she argues, while calming everybody down is the modern response to problems, it is in fact the exact opposite of what should be done. "Stress is like a very advanced burglar alarm system," she says. "But instead of looking for the burglar, we are taking the alarm down off the wall and throwing it in the dustbin."

ONE of the other speakers at the forthcoming conference will be Dr Rob Briner, head of organisational psychology at Birkbeck college, London. Dr Briner has been researching stress for 15 years, starting as an undergraduate, investigating the links between stress and illness; but his research radically changed direction when he discovered the lack of proper scientific evidence on the subject. "I used to be a stressologist. I used to believe in it all," he says. Now he believes that the reliance on "stress" as a coverall diagnosis is based on "convenience and laziness".

"If you are a GP who has a patient who isn't feeling too happy, who is letting things get on top of them, but who has no specific diagnosable symptoms, it's easy to say 'oh, it's stress'," he says. "Fifty years ago it would have been 'nerves'."

Human beings, he says, have varied responses to different situations, and to use a blanket term such as "stress" to refer to feelings such as anxiety, depression or tiredness is meaningless. And furthermore, he says, just as the links between stress and poor health are tenuous, so are the links between stress and workplace absenteeism. He is not, he explains, suggesting that people do not feel negative emotions in response to their experiences at work, nor that the physical or psychological characteristics of work cannot or should not be improved. "But there are all kinds of reasons for absenteeism and when you sift through the evidence of a link with stress there is very little that can be taken seriously." Just as patients want their doctors to put any vague malaise down to stress, we also court the notion in the workplace. "Ten years ago, if someone asked if you were busy, it was okay to say 'I'm pretty busy'," says Dr Briner. "Then you felt you had to say 'very busy' and now it's 'very, very busy'. There is a feeling that if you are not very, very busy, you are not doing your job properly."

Both Ms Patmore and Dr Briner dismiss the stress management tools of counselling and relaxation therapies as useless or worse. "The huge imprecision surrounding what stress is and how we react to it has spawned an industry that is unregulated, and very large and very lucrative," says Ms Patmore. "Having this industry there, purporting to help us, lures us into thinking that our natural state is to be happy and peaceful. That is not the truth, and it leads to people being zombified." The real problem, she believes, is not stress but overwork, and tackling this root cause should be the employer's priority, rather than laying on consultants offering lavender oil massages.

And, she adds, far from trying to calm down employees, employers should be shaking them up. "Sensation-seeking and going in search of duplicates of the stress response, like physical challenges or cathartic films, makes people better able to cope. Look at the audience at a sports match: they get tense, they cry out, they experience excitement and anguish and they feel better afterwards."

Far better than putting all one's feelings down to stress, says Dr Briner, analysing them calmly makes them seem much more manageable and also logical. For example, thinking "I'm feeling anxious about the presentation I have to make tomorrow morning, and at the same time I'm worried about my sick cat, and I'm feeling pressured for time because I'm running late" makes more sense than panicking about stress in general. "Simply worrying about work and believing you are stressed is a form of psychological hypochondria," he says.

And simply shutting up and getting on with life has its place, too. "The argument that we are more stressed in the Eighties and Nineties is nonsense. How can a few phones going off be more stressful than seeing the plague carts going past ?" asks Ms Patmore. "When the doodlebugs were raining down people who survived felt real exhilaration and gained self-esteem from their survival. It's insulting to the older generations and our forebears to suggest that we are more stressed now." Perhaps the event that would really put the stress counsellors out of business is a good old-fashioned war.

Stress: A Change of Direction will be held at the Marlborough Hotel, Bloomsbury Street, London WC1, on Monday 15 June. Information: 07050 055344