Friday 20 October 2006
'There's no such thing as "stress"'
Angela Patmore has been branded a ‘heartless bitch’ for her attack on the stress management industry. Calm down and get a life, she tells her critics.
spiked is the online partner of the Battle of Ideas , the two-day festival of debate that will take place in London on 28 and 29 October 2006. In the run-up to the Battle, we will publish a series of taster interviews with some of the speakers and participants. In the seventh in the series Helene Guldberg talks to Angela Patmore, who is speaking in the session Workplace stress – medical epidemic or all in the mind? on 28 October.
Sometimes it seems as if everybody is ‘stressed out’ these days. Yet according to Angela Patmore, author of The Truth About Stress, the ubiquitous term ‘stress’ is ‘bogus and illogical’. She sees the supposed ‘stress epidemic’ of the last two decades as ‘deeply harmful to society’, and thinks that our preoccupation with stress has helped turn individuals into ‘sufferers’ rather than encouraging them to confront and overcome routine concerns.
Many have misinterpreted Patmore’s central thesis, believing she is having a pop at those who find it difficult to cope. Even one book reviewer who sympathised with Patmore over being ‘accused in all kinds of roundabout ways of being a heartless bitch’, complained that she had written off as ‘weaklings’ those who ‘in certain situations do, with blazing frequency, have mental and physical responses that they cannot master’ (1).
As Patmore tells me, ‘if you attack the ideology of stress management you get accused of attacking those who are suffering, which I am not doing.‘
Patmore recognises that there are people who, as a result of traumatic events or relentless everyday pressures, reach the point where they cannot cope. Despite its many shortcomings, one might hope that the psychiatric profession could find a way of helping those who are mentally ill. But, she says, ‘people’s coping mechanisms are not helped by the stress management industry’.
De-stressing, her book shows, has become a multi-million-pound industry. And, she tells me, it is an industry that is entirely unregulated: ‘there is more regulation of hairdressing than people working on your head.‘
For Patmore, the stress management industry is not just ineffective. Its efforts are making things worse. Hundreds of thousands of therapists, counsellors and healers are ‘instilling fear and insecurity in people about perfectly normal coping mechanisms and emotions’, she argues, ‘which is a terrible thing to do’.
Patmore started researching the concept of stress in the 1990s, while working at the University of East Anglia with a team of World Health Organisation scientists. A meta-analysis of the clinical literature on stress showed that there were ‘literally hundreds of different definitions [of stress], some of them opposites, some of them irreconcilable and all of them felt to be “the correct one” by somebody or other.‘
So it proved impossible to define stress. And if there were no such thing as ‘stress’, if the label really meant nothing, then as she states in her book, ‘the whole stress management ideology must be at best misleading and at worst a dangerous deceit.‘
On the UK’s national Stress Awareness Day (1 November), we can expect to be bombarded with yet more reminders of how stressful modern life is. But the more we are told how stressed we should be, and the more the stress management industry grows, the more ‘stressed’ we are becoming.
‘Let’s look at the statistics,‘ Patmore says: ‘Between 1991 and 2003 the number of accredited stress counsellors increased by 804 per cent’. At the same time more and more people are apparently becoming more stressed. ‘So the more counsellors there are the more stressed people there are. What does that tell you?‘
Absences put down to stress now account for 12.8million lost working days per year in Britain, and cost British companies £1.24billion. Stress has overtaken back pain as the single biggest cause of long-term sickness absence. Even powerful people entrusted with running a country are not immune to the effects of ‘stress’ - a few years ago the Norwegian prime minister was given several weeks sick leave due to ‘the stresses of the job’.
The de-stressing industry does not seem to be helping people. ‘Of course, you may strike it lucky’, Patmore concedes, ‘and get some useful help. But you may be unlucky and end up worse off.‘ If we are encouraged to view ourselves as fragile creatures unable to cope without professional help, then minor problems can easily become potential crises.
And the ‘stress epidemic’ cannot be explained by life becoming harder in the twenty-first century. As Patmore points out, ‘during the London Blitz, for example, everyone lived under daily threat of enemy bombs. They worried about loved ones on the front line, about rationing, and about what might happen if the Nazis invaded’. Or, she adds, ‘take the Victorian age, when half of all children in poor families died before the age of five and families lived constantly with bereavement’.
Patmore’s message is a positive one. Life is if anything less stressful today, and human beings can be remarkably resilient, if only we are given the chance to find our own way of dealing with hardships.
The Truth About Stress by Angela Patmore is published by Atlantic Books (buy this book from Amazon (UK)).
(1) Zoe Williams, All Too Much, New Statesman, 13 February 2006
First published by spiked