E Jane Dickson: So how stressful is modern life?

People were less inclined to vaunt their stress levels before the compensation culture made it lucrative to do so

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It is, of course, a relief to know that the pig pleasured by Rebecca Loos on the reality television show
The Farm was not unduly stressed by the event. An Ofcom investigation into the incident, in which the resourceful Ms Loos was required to stimulate a pig to produce semen for artificial insemination purposes, has ruled that the boar was neither degraded nor traumatised by the process, which accurately reflected life on a working farm. The pig, who is to be commended for his sangfroid, will not be suing.

It is, of course, a relief to know that the pig pleasured by Rebecca Loos on the reality television show The Farm was not unduly stressed by the event. An Ofcom investigation into the incident, in which the resourceful Ms Loos was required to stimulate a pig to produce semen for artificial insemination purposes, has ruled that the boar was neither degraded nor traumatised by the process, which accurately reflected life on a working farm. The pig, who is to be commended for his sangfroid, will not be suing.

This is fortunate, since the courts will, in all probability, be jammed by class action lawsuits brought by commuters who learned this week that the stress levels they experience in a traffic jam or a delayed train are greater than those suffered by fighter pilots going into battle. A five-year research project carried out by David Lewis, a psychologist and stress expert, concluded that, while fighter pilots might fear for their lives on a daily basis, they have the advantage of being in relative control of their situation. Teeth-grinding commuters, at the mercy of tailbacks or leaves on the line, are, on the other hand, under an "extreme pressure" that may leave them debilitated by the newly minted syndrome of "commuter amnesia".

"People suffering from even small levels of stress and discomfort during their journey can experience commuter amnesia," claims Dr Lewis. "And, unless something remarkable occurs, they will remember absolutely nothing about their journey."

Maybe I'm suffering from computer amnesia (the condition that leaves columnists stuck for long periods in front of a WP screen with a severe mental blank ), but I'm having a hard time seeing what is so bad about this. It's the classic bad news/good news situation; you're stuck in someone's armpit for 40 minutes (and as a non-driver, I'm stuck there more often than most), but, hey, life takes over and you don't spend the rest of the day in a foetal position reliving "My Armpit Hell".

I don't dispute that commuting is a hateful business, but the identification of commuter amnesia (which might, in a less stress-conscious world, be called a coping mechanism) seems to me symptomatic of a society determined to make a big psychological deal out of damn all.

Stress is the infinitesimally calibrated index against which every human (and, in the case of Loos v Pinky, porcine) activity is now measured. The consensus is that it is not major life crises - the death of a loved one, divorce, bankruptcy, etc - that erode our well-being, but the "chronic stress" of daily life . This seems entirely plausible - the ancients knew that constant dripping will wear away a stone - but the ever-growing list of recognised "stress factors" tends to weaken the hypothesis.

Consider for example, the phenomenon of "menu stress", the panic apparently experienced by diners faced with overwhelming choice in restaurants. Most of us, placed in this challenging position, might think "Bugger it, I'll have the hamburger"; but, should you be lucky enough to live in New York, there are dedicated counsellors who can cure your condition. (I guess you start your aversion therapy at Dunkin' Donuts and work your way up to Le Cirque).

Like those 18th-century aristocrats who applied "beauty spots" over pox marks, we display our stress with something horribly like pride. We collect the accessories - the whale song tapes, the distillates of Peruvian rainflower, the whole panoply of stress quackery - as proof of belonging to the stressed-out classes. Only in a terminally effete psychological culture could we countenance the notion of "stress envy", but there it is, logged in the scientific journals - "a crippling feeling of inadequacy in those without 'visible' stress in their lives".

It's sick and it's a shame, because it masks the damage caused by real (and not always visible) stress. I am unsurprised by the findings of a Californian study focusing on mothers, some of whom were caring for a chronically sick child; researchers found that stress of this kind appeared to affect telomeres - the caps of DNA at the ends of chromosomes, which are believed to play a key role in cellular ageing and resistance to disease. I have watched a good friend nurse two sons through life-or-death crises for four years and I don't need a telomere count to know what it has taken out of her. But I'm not sure I'll even tell her about the telomeres. Because she's got enough to worry about as it is. And because I don't know what she is supposed to do with the information. There is no lifestyle decision she can make that will dramatically cut her stress levels because real stress goes beyond lifestyle. Whale song doesn't cut it for this kind of overwhelming anxiety. Instead, my friend has had to fall back on unimaginable reserves of courage and love and bloody determination, none of which can be bought from the Tranquillity catalogue.

It is a tenet of postmodern society that there can be no relativism in emotions - you cannot weigh one person's stress against another's - but sometimes, surely, you have to make a judgement call. I feel very sorry for Malcolm Wright, the cab driver who accidentally killed a teenager who walked out in front of his car. The distress caused to the driver in these situations must be terrible and far reaching. I do not, however, understand Mr Wright's decision to sue the dead boy's parents for his trauma. And I fear the precedent, because it seems to me that the thick end of the wedge is finally here.

The petty merchandising of stress is one thing - why not buy herbal tea blessed by lamas if it makes you feel better? - but putting a price on trauma is now big business. And it is, I suspect, what drives the whole "stress industry". I don't think I'm imagining that people were less inclined to vaunt their stress levels before the compensation culture made it lucrative to do so. Nor do I think that compensation is always inappropriate; the 30,000 pesos- (approximately £100) a-month awarded this week by the Chilean government to some of those tortured under Pinochet's regime seems woefully inadequate. But wouldn't you know it? Among the claims and counter-claims surrounding this long overdue award are demands from the torturers that they, too, should be compensated for the stress their jobs caused them and their families.

So ingrained in our culture has this idea of "stress and reward" become that we have turned it into prime-time entertainment, settling down in our millions every night to watch the manufactured stress of highly paid celebrities grubbing for food tokens in vats of maggots.

The old pain/gain line has been turned on its head; increasingly, there is no pain that does not at least carry the possibility of gain and there is no stiff upper lip that will not tremble at a price. Where money is not involved, "stress" has come to mean a kind of pathologised sentimentality, a mutinous "why me?" resentment that bad things should ever happen. It is interesting that almost every report on stress is qualified by the term "perceived stress levels". There is no objective standard, which is not quite the same as saying it's all in the mind, but it's certainly worth giving it a try.

Bad things do happen. You can't generally make them go away by not thinking about them. But stress might just be the exception to the rule.

e_jane.dickson@virgin.net

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