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Lucy Mangan: "Who’s to blame for your stress?"

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"Happy – though I suppose that’s not the word – National Stress awareness day!

We live in a stress-filled world, there is no doubt. Millions upon millions of years of evolution prepared us to survive in little enclaves with a few hundred other loincloth-clad people, gathering nuts and berries and occasionally bringing down the doziest mammoth in a passing herd. It did not prepare us to live in massive metropolises among countless thousands of people and nary a glimpse of savannah as far as the eye can see, alienated from nature, the natural ebb and flow of daylight, eating crap and drinking worse, in denial of everything our primitive instincts would tell us is right for us and our hopelessly unmodern brains and bodies.

But what stresses me out the most (apart from the phrase ‘stresses me out’) is all the utter balls talked about stress. The latest example to cause my many aneurysms to strain at their increasingly thin seams is a recent study which appears to show that only those who said they had experienced lots of stress in the preceding 12 months AND believed it was bad for their health showed an increased mortality rate.

In other words (especially the words in which the conclusions were reported) the way we think about stress is what kills us, not the stress itself.

The problem here is twofold. First, there’s the question of what each of those people studied meant by stress. Different psychologists and different disciplines subdivide it endlessly. Sometimes they group it into four types: time stress; situational stress (having no control over an event, particularly a sudden one or one that involves conflict or a loss of status); anticipatory stress (worrying about a particular upcoming event, or more diffusely about The Future); and encounter stress (meeting people). Sometimes it’s seven types, sometimes nine, sometimes it’s divided not according to the stimulus but by whether it’s chronic, episode or acute and so on.

This is what happens when psychologists get involved. Life suddenly looks very complicated.

What stresses me out most is all the utter balls talked about stress

But is it, really? As in real-life really. Because when I look at my own and the lives of those around me, I suspect that there are really only two types of stress – and only one that really matters. There is the stress about things that are ultimately within your control or which brings you discernible benefits, and there is the stress about things which are absolutely not within your control – which just happen to you because life is quite sh*tty quite a lot of the time and there is only so much you can shovel out of your way in any one go.

It’s the difference, for example, between willingly taking on an extra project or going slightly outside your comfort zone at work because you know you’ll learn new skills, gain new contacts and bring a good-employee glow in your boss’s mind next time it comes to promotions, and being permanently loaded with impossible amounts of work by a boss who can’t or won’t hire the extra person needed for the job and not being in a position to do anything about it.

Only the latter, surely, makes you truly unhappy and unhealthy. And most of us live with some kind of mixture of the two. But would we know enough about it or ourselves to distinguish between them if somebody asked? Maybe some of us would say, ‘Yes, lotta stress in the last year’ if we had experienced any of either. Maybe some would only say so if the involuntary kind had been in the ascendant, while others would say so even if their stress was solely of the self-inflicted kind.

Meanwhile, the second problem is that if people get told that they can control the effects of their stress simply by framing their thoughts differently, it places all the responsibility on the individual and none on the structural forces acting on them and outside their control. Bosses are free to pile on more work, governments free to make policies with less concern for the stress they cause those affected, and the worst stresses on us only increase.

I’m always wary when I read reports or see any studies reported in a way that suggests we move collective responsibility onto the individual, or suggest a change in attitude to allow acceptance of a situation rather than try to find the root cause of said situation. Because do you know for whom that almost never ends well? The individuals who aren’t in charge. And they, of course, are stressed enough already.”

Image credit: Rex Features

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