How ‘stress management’ can make your blood pressure soar

There is a huge industry with a vested interest in keeping people’s anxiety levels high

21 November 2015

9:00 AM

21 November 2015

9:00 AM

We seem to be in the grip of a terrible stress epidemic. According to a new study by the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development, a professional body for managers in human resources, two fifths of all organisations stated that stress-related absence has increased. It even causes terrorism, apparently: the mother of Paris suicide bomber Ibrahim Abdeslam said she believes her son might have blown himself up because of stress.

The total number of cases of work-related stress, depression and anxiety in the past year was 440,000, according to the Health and Safety Executive, up from 428,000 cases two years earlier. So extensive is this plague that, in the HSE’s view, stress accounts for no less than a third of all work-related ill-health cases. In practice, that translates into the loss of 10 million working days last year.

The problem seems particularly acute in the public sector. A Guardian survey of staff in the public and voluntary sectors, carried out this June by the Guardian, revealed that ‘93 per cent of respondents say they are stressed either all, some or a lot of the time’. And a study by the NASUWT union in March this year found 83 per cent of teachers had reported workplace stress. The Public and Commercial Services Union has claimed two-thirds of civil servants have ‘suffered from ill health as result of stress at work’.

The spread of this epidemic has been accompanied by the creation of a vast stress-management industry, made up of counsellors, therapists, trainers, health workers and life coaches, many of whose activities are entirely unregulated. At the last count, there were some 15 million websites offering such services. Among the methods used supposedly to tackle stress are transcendental meditation, flotation tanks, breathing techniques, massage sessions, mindfulness teaching, Zumba classes, dough balls, and ‘mood cards’.

Some interventions are medical. NHS statistics show that last year, 53 million packs of antidepressants were dispensed. The use of heavy-duty drugs like mirtazapine, diazepam, venlafaxine and sertraline all increased, the last by a staggering 29 per cent.

The paradox is that the more our society dishes out the antidepressants and dough balls, the less able we seem to be at handling stress. This might be because the stress-management industry has a vested interest in keeping stress levels high. At any rate, it appears to worsen what it purports to solve.

But what is stress, really? The definition is so vague as to be almost meaningless. It now encompasses almost any heightened feeling, from weariness to alarm, from anger to nervousness. Based on the idea that the natural state is calmness, the concept of stress promotes the idea that any strong emotion must be physically or psychologically harmful.

This lack of definition has arisen because the scientist who invented the idea had a poor command of English. Hans Selye, an endocrinologist from Hungary, studied the reactions of rats’ bodies to demands placed upon them in his laboratory, and in 1936 he appropriated the term ‘stress’ from the world of physics. In that field, stress meant something very specific, referring to the magnitude of an external force which produces a proportional amount of deformation — or strain — in an elastic object. Selye should have spoken of ‘strain’. But the imprecision of his terminology, which gained widespread currency through his 1956 book The Stress of Life, opened the way to the stress hysteria that we see today. There is an old saying that to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Today, in the world of therapy and Zumba classes, every emotion looks like stress.

Yet it defies history and common sense to pretend that workplace stress is increasing. Most of us enjoy shorter hours, better pay, longer holidays, greater security and higher living standards than Britons of the past. In place of manual labour and heavy industry, we tend to work in comfortable surroundings.

Far from helping anyone, the stress fad is profoundly dangerous. It creates a climate of resignation and fear in the workplace. The medicalisation of emotion encourages an attitude of ‘learned helplessness’, and encourages some to feel that work is actually damaging their health, when all research shows the opposite.

Falsely described as stress, intensity of feeling is a biological impulse that enables us to cope with the challenges that are unavoidable in work and life. It should be welcomed as a vital part of the human condition.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Leo McKinstry is a columnist with the Daily Express. Angela Patmore is the author of The Truth About Stress.

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Show comments
  • Marcus

    I am a work stress researcher and former headhunter who has seen a rise in these issues through hands-on experience of my own, and by working with others. Although I agree with some of your points – maybe we have lost some of the basic hardiness needed to survive, and maybe we feel too entitled to be happy and unstressed – it’s also an incredible misnomer to suppose that the entire thing is simply “made up”. For example, I disagree that we have it easier than before. I grew up in Hertfordshire, where my mother was a GP, and the major breadwinner. We moved to the south coast. The house we once owned is now, adjusted for inflation, 3.7 times the value it was in 1996, making it way too expensive for two GPs to live in, let alone one. Additionally, recent press about the changing nature of work in many jobs, like being a GP, where excessive regulations and undue pressure which simply didn’t exist 25 years ago are rife today, taints the other half of our work-life balance. So, there is a confound there, but it’s a relevant one. Today’s GP cannot live in my hometown, unless they rent a small flat, not own a four-or-five bedroom semi. They are cramped, their kids have no-where to go, and they are more financially stretched than ever before. Together with the general and highly pervasive loss of autonomy and job security in established middle-class jobs (where people intelligent enough to do them should be thriving on a degree of self-governance), people are not more comfortable than a generation ago, but far, far less. My final point is that Hans Selye also researched heavily on “eustress” which is a healthy level of necessary stress for performance and growth at work. He discussed and found evidence for a curvilinear relationship between stress and various outcomes, not a linear one, as many suppose. His grasp of the subject was excellent, and still highly relevant (if not even more so), today.

    • plainsdrifter

      I think you are underlining the point of the article.

  • Ed  

    Well, when you work for a private organization that will simply fail if the work isn’t done well, and quickly, then yes, there’s stress. That’s one of the reasons the West is wealthy. We work hard. It’s not really all that new, either. Personally, I find the best antidote to stress is to get my work the bleep done, so I’m not worrying about it.

    There’s a sort of person who doesn’t like that approach. I think one of their reasons is that they don’t want to do their own work, and they don’t want to be shown up not doing their own work.

  • JamesCovey123

    The abuse industry is worth billions every year across the western world.

  • Ancient Mariner

    McKinstry is stressed!

  • Katja Küttner

    Yes, thanks to that legend about “everything in life is stressful” many couches and all thouse zumba meditation classes’ instructors have their piece of cake and a portion of money. Just start talking about having some doubts in what you do at work or thinking about the basic things in life and all your acquaintances will nudge you to have an appointment with “a professionals” or therapists who will give you a pack of anti-depressants and eventually put you against all your friends and relatives “who only want to control your life”. And, of course, those stories about stress is a good pretext not to give a real treatment for serious illnesses, by putting it down to the stress and loading your organism with quite expensive anti-depressants.

  • plainsdrifter

    This article should have appeared some years ago.

    The truth is that western societies have become, neurotic, sentimental, indisciplined, self-indulgent, over-indulged, and narcissistic.

    If they are the reasons for going bonkers, they are lousy reasons but they probably result in a lack of moral fibre.

    The best way to de-stress is drink a lot and talk a lot with one or two close friends.

    If that doesn’t work, go for a long walk, and then drink a lot.

    If that doesn’t work, tough.