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Last Updated: Thursday, 4 March, 2004, 12:17 GMT
Learning to love stress
By Brendan O'Neill

Modern life is stressful. Workers, bosses, and even children are apparently suffering. But could stress be something that's actually good for us?

Over the past five years, more than a million people have moved from working for a living to claiming benefits, a "large majority" of them suffering from "stress-related illnesses".

The Health and Safety Executive estimates that work-related stress, anxiety and depression costs about 13 million working days a year. The TUC says trade unions are currently handling around 6,400 stress-related potential claims against employers.

Life, relationships, money - all have been blamed for the stress epidemic. Richard Exell, labour market expert at the TUC, says it's because people are being more closely supervised at work.

How can a few phones going off be more stressful than seeing the plague carts go past?
Stress specialist Angela Patmore
But it isn't only those who are being watched who are suffering. Last month a survey found bosses were stressed too. Two-thirds of 870 senior businessmen and women surveyed said they worked more than 45 hours a week, and 53% claimed to be suffering from stress, largely caused by "having too much to do in too little time".

If all this talk of stress at work is making you think wistfully of the "best days of your life", think again - it seems that even schoolchildren are tense these days.

Last month, a lifestyle survey found that six in 10 children aged 16 and under often feel "stressed out". More than a quarter of children aged four to six - not normally considered a fraught period of one's life - said they occasionally felt "stressed".

Tony Blair
The pressure shows?
Even those charged with running the country are not immune to the stress epidemic - former Norwegian prime minister Kjell Magne Bondevik left office in 2000, saying there was "too much work and stress" involved in running a country.

Amid concerns for Tony Blair's health, Dr Lewis Moonie MP, former armed forces minister, claimed the seriousness of the PM's heart scare last year had been downplayed by a nervous Downing Street. And Sir Cliff Richard revealed that he offered the Blairs the use of his villa in Barbados last summer after becoming alarmed at the stress he was showing over Iraq.

Harder lives?

But what is the cause of all this stress? Have life, work and even playtime really become much harder to cope with than in the past? Some experts doubt it.

Children too have their burdens
According to academic David Wainwright, co-author of Work Stress: The Making of a Modern Epidemic, life has not necessarily become more stressful. Rather, he says, in our "therapeutic age", where we tend to view ourselves as fragile creatures in need of a self-esteem boost, we are encouraged to see even minor problems as potential crises and to underestimate our ability to cope without official help.

"Stress theorists say there is a 'stress epidemic' because we are all facing greater psychological demands, for instance balancing increased job demands with childcare commitments," says Mr Wainwright.

"There is some truth in this - but it doesn't explain why there was no stress epidemic in, say, the 1930s, when working people faced significantly greater physical and psychological demands both at home and in the workplace."

Mental resilience

According to Mr Wainwright, the contemporary obsession with stress is a result of cultural shifts, rather than workers - or children, for that matter, living harder lives than their ancestors.

"The recent stress epidemic results from cultural changes in our beliefs about mental resilience," he says. "We live in a culture that constantly bombards us with the claim that the trials and tribulations of everyday life are likely to cause 'emotional scarring' or 'psychological damage'.

"This inflation of the threat posed by everyday life is matched by a diminished sense of our capacity to cope. Taken together, these changes in Britain's emotional script, if you like, lead us to believe that we are incapable of overcoming virtually any form of personal hardship," says Mr Wainwright. In short, we are almost "encouraged to become stressed out".

The 'fight or flight' response is designed to galvanise us into action
Angela Patmore
Stress specialist Angela Patmore has also noted that today's "stress epidemic" cannot possibly be explained by life becoming harder - because it hasn't. Contrasting today's claims of widespread work stress with what people had to endure in the past, she asks: "How can a few phones going off be more stressful than seeing the plague carts go past?"

Ms Patmore is concerned about our tendency to view stress as an illness. Stress management theory is based on the idea that stress is a disease which should be managed or potentially cured. But Patmore says the "stress response" - where our heart rate and blood pressure go up, our muscles tense, and our pupils dilate - in fact helps us to cope with and overcome adversity.

"The stress response is actually a survival mechanism of some importance," she says.

"Triggered when we face challenges to our wellbeing, this 'fight or flight' response is designed to galvanise us into action. For a short time it enhances our mental and physical skills, and it is associated with brainwaves, focused attention and creativity."

Rather than getting stressed out about stress responses, says Ms Patmore, we should embrace them as "helping us through hard times".

Are you stressed? Know any good ways of coping with it? Here is a selection of your views:

Yes I'm stressed - have had a lot of time off work recently because of it. I totally disagree with the conclusions reached in this argument - the stress response is indeed a survival mechanism, but the key words are "For a short time it enhances our mental and physical skills...". The stress suffered by the vast majority of people today is due to overly-high expectations. Parents are expected to bring up perfectly behaved children, often working full-time, as well as decorate the house, own the latest gadgets, have a holiday once a year, maintain a good public appearance etc. So what's the way to cope with stress? Decide what one thing in your life is most important to you (work, family, friends, money etc.) and make that the only thing you worry about. Make sure you differentiate clearly between what you need and what you want - if you don't need it, write it down somewhere and forget about it until you have sufficient time / money / whatever to deal with it.
Rowan Fothergill, England

Stress is normal - I quite enjoy stress caused by deadlines etc, as they make me work hard, which is fun. However, I see people around me getting bent out of shape about the most absurd little things. The coffee machine is bust - and it's the end of the world. The printer has run out of paper, or has eaten an envelope - and you'd think someone's life was actually in danger. I've seen someone physically smash up a printer (irreparably) when it jammed once. I think the problem here is that we don't have any life-threatening problems. The human being is evolved to cope with real and present danger. And the most dangerous thing most people do these days is go for a tattoo or a bungee jump. And only a minority engage in that sort of activity. This is like any human biological system - live in too clean an environment and your immune system turns inward for want of something to do. Live in too safe a world and your stress mechanisms develop hair triggers. What's the solution? Import angry elephants to the inner cities to give people something to really worry about?
Rachel Coldbreath, UK

I believe that a lot of "stress" is self induced by virtue of the way we respond to "pressure of work" etc. Nowadays we tend to think too much about our own state of mind, instead of "getting on with it" as our ancestors did! Excising "poor me" from our vocabulary, leads to a stronger psychological state.
James Millet, England

Stress can be coped with two words - Self Belief - people today are spending so much time saying they can't cope that they are not coping. If you can't cope: prioritise, change the things you can and then get on.
Steve Mc Ginty, England

There is no way that any stress is good for you. Pressure might work for some of us but stress is a negative state which causes biological and social illnesses. Good stress? There is no such thing. I dream of a world which is stress free.
Nikolai, UK

It's not "stress" that's causing so many lost working days in Britain. It's the "experts" who came up with the idea that having to work, make ends meet and make choices involving you and your family is something that nobody should have to do without a carrot - this usually being in the form of weeks or even months off work on full pay for feeling sorry for yourself. Both my partner and I have seen it in our workplaces, and it's a joke. These people have no idea what real stress is, and I'm happy to admit that neither do I. They make me sick. They should thank Providence or God that they haven't got any real problems.
James Cox, Scotland

I think we need to distinguish between pressure and stress....pressure is good, helps us grow, builds character and makes our lives interesting and worth living. Having pressure or tough times is exciting and getting through them is really rewarding. Stress is the inability to cope with the pressure. People today, don't want to cope with pressure. They just want an easy life. NEW FLASH...life ain't easy that's what makes it fun. Who wants to play a game that's easy...it's boring.
Ben, UK

I think that kids are getting stressed out a lot because of the pressure that is put on them to get good grades, a good job, and in some cases university. This is still while they're growing up and should be enjoying their childhood. There are so many decisions that they have to make, especially about further education.
Maile, Guernsey, Channel Islands

As an engineering student standing on two society committees and with relationship difficulties, I find attacking a filing cabinet with a claw hammer to be very therapeutic.
Rob, Sheffield, UK

The best way I know to wind down after a heavy day at work is to sit on the sofa cuddled up to my boyfriend!
Tracey, UK

The best way to cope with stress is to practice sport. It lets you forget everything and concentrate only on your exercise or game. It's good fun and in the end, if you trained well you will be left with no energy to spend on stress and you'll get a good night of sleep.
Muadib, Tori

How can these psychologists seriously compare the 1930's to the current situation? Back then very little was known about stress related illnesses and to admit suffering from them would have been socially unacceptable, and caused the individual to be ridiculed and/or socially excluded.
Chris Hurst, UK

I sometimes feel that those of us who are not stressed at work will soon become an oppressed minority - reviled for an ability to deal with the everyday problems that life brings without resorting to histrionics or pills. Life, and certainly the attainment of personal goals / dreams, has always been difficult. Taking responsibility and control of your life is a good way of avoiding stress - problems are then put in the context of obstacles to be removed to allow you to achieve what you want. As long as you believe that someone else is in control of your destiny, you will condemn yourself to inaction and misery. Stop whining, prioritise what is important for you and take action - and watch the "stress" disappear
Pat Moore, England

Whatever happened to the good old British stiff upper lip? In comparison to even those a generation ago living through the second world war, rationing, destruction of homes etc, we have it easy. Yes, it is good to recognise the times when you are under pressure at work, but people now use the term "stress" liberally when in fact they mean "pressure". The difference between satisfying conflicting demands of clients in a limited space of time at work, which is pressure, and your body physically reacting badly to your inability to manage a situation, stress, is big. Understand the difference, manage your workload, exercise, eat correctly, talk to others, delegate - there are a huge number of ways to deal with pressure and prevent it becoming stress. Stress is a mental and physical condition, if you tell yourself you have it, you will get it.
Ross, UK

I think the person who used the word 'stress', instead of 'busy' should be shot. People are using the stress term too freely. When I have a 1001 things to do in little time I am very busy, not very stressed - I can still only do one thing at a time. Stress is when your brain can't work because a shutdown caused by overworking without a sufficient break, and where you feel physically exhausted.
Nigel, UK

Angela Patmore, I suspect has a comfortable and organised life where she controls her own work. Well done to her for spending years of her life studying and learning to a point where she can tell everyone who works for a living that they are imagining any stress they feel, and it's just because other qualified experts are telling them they are stressed that they feel so. What a relief! thanks Ange.
John Sinclair, England

The arguments expressed here professing that stress is imagined and people should just pull themselves together and get on with it, are on the whole quite convincing and believable. Indeed I would have agreed with them myself had I not suffered from stress a couple of years ago. It was a real illness to me and I would say that these people could not possibly understand it unless they suffered it themselves.
Bob, UK

I think stress comes from the must have it all culture. We are currently told we are not working hard enough, our children are going to get kidnapped and paedophiles lurk round every corner. The world today thrives on bad news and people get upset they don't seem to be able to do anything about it. I think stress is caused by the can't fail attitude everyone else adopts. Its easy to say I can't do this I'm stressed that I'm failing at this because I'm just not good at it.
Anita, Scotland

I have had one run in with 'stress related illness'... and it wasn't some fuzzy, 'all in the head', psychosomatic claptrap like some of the 'pull your finger out' types on here are suggesting all stress illness is. It was major muscular spasm in my back and neck that left me unable to stand or walk for 2 days and needed the attention of a physiotherapist! Pressure is necessary to drive people, but it must be recognised that everyone can take different levels of pressure before their 'fight or flight' response is activated, and if you are put in a situation where that response is on constantly, chronic stress, your body is going to fail in some way. And the results are definitely not made up just because someone wants an easy life... P.S. I was only off work for as long as I was incapacitated, so I'm definitely not workshy!
Andy Moore, UK

This article misses my main cause of stress - exams. Since the age of 11 I have been through over 70 formal exams in the various guises of SATs, 12 GCSE subjects, 4 modular and one terminal A-Level, and nearly 3 years of a Law degree at the University of Birmingham. Add to this driving/theory tests, entrance exams for Uni, other qualifications in IT, all whilst maintaining part-time work because the government refuses to help me, and I think it equates to a high amount of stress for someone of my age (20). But of course, students are lazy and lay in bed all day with nothing better to do than eat takeaway pizza and burn government money...
Dan, Bournemouth, UK

I have a question for Ms Patmore regarding her quote: "Triggered when we face challenges to our wellbeing, this 'fight or flight' response is designed to galvanise us into action." What happens when your "flight" response is triggered but you are forced to stay and fight? This happens all the time because you cannot "flee" your responsibilities even when your body tells you to do so. In my opinion when you are forced to stay and fight this prolonged "unnatural" state has an adverse, negative effect on your body.
Jenny Spray, London, UK

I have read so many books about how to handle stress! Why not try slowing life down a little. Letters take a few moments now instead of days to respond!. Children need to run around to clubs and kept under foot! Nuclear families instead of the extended family mean there is no relative to offload the children for an hour and sitting in traffic for hours on end must have been such a problem in the 1930s! Yes life was tougher then but far less stressful. Poor kids today have to be the best, have the best and achieve the best. What a state of affairs!
Dawn, UK

Stress schmess. Drink more beer.
Geoff, UK

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