The Intelligence of Stress

Angela Patmore, author, who served in the Metropolitan Police External Experts Stress Advisory Group, claims ‘there really is no such thing as stress.’  Indeed, she goes on to say that ‘stress is a mythical malaise – a designer disease.’  Does this mean that when a mother is stressed out from the constant wailing of a baby, or an employee is bullied daily in the workplace, or a person is stressed out from overworking, rushing and racing or a woman is terrified because she might have breast cancer, that all of these stress responses are imaginary, not real?  And the many men who take their lives because of deep inner turmoil, is Patmore saying this is not real?

Admittedly, stress is a relatively new word for human distress and turmoil.  Interestingly, the word was borrowed from science which recognises that when prolonged and extended pressure is put on metal, it fatigues and breaks down.  Several plane crashes have been known to be due to metal fatigue: too much strain and pressure put on the metal over too long a period of time.

The word stress means pressure and strain and is a much kinder word than the older descriptions of human distress: ‘she’s suffering from her nerves’, ‘he’s neurotic or psychotic’ or ‘your man is a bit peculiar’.  Use of the word stress has not created more human problems, as Patmore would have us believe, but it has made it easier for people to more readily identify such problems.  In the area of psychosomatic medicine it is well documented that the six leading causes of death – heart disease, cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, lung ailments, accidents and suicide are either directly or indirectly caused by stress.  General Practitioners admit that up to 70% of visits to them are due to stress-related difficulties.  I believe Patmore misses the point when she describes stress as ‘a designer disease’ and is closer to the point when she claims that ‘stress is a perfectly normal emotion with normal physiological reactions’.

In claiming that it is a ‘designer disease’, she slips into the very thing she warns us not to do, and that is not medicalise stress symptoms.  I totally agree that stress be not medicalised, but in calling it a disease she is not seeing the true purpose of stress.  In saying it is a normal emotion that signals the need for action she is closer to the truth of what stress is all about.  What she fails to point out is that it is not stress that poses the threat to our well-being, but the not acting on it.  It is wiser to view the stress response metaphorically and view it as attempting to bring emphasis on some aspect of a person’s internal and/or external life that needs resolution.  Stress is an ally, a friend that is calling out for a person to take whatever actions are needed to restore a sense of being in charge and a sense of equilibrium.  When a person denies, ignores, dismisses the signs and the effects of stress, the risks to their health increase because they are not taking responsibility for the conflicts in their lives.  Of its very nature, the stress response, the normal emotional and physiological responses, will increase in intensity to wake the person up to the urgent need to set about resolving their inner and outer conflicts.  Rather than debunking stress, it would better serve people if Patmore were to help individuals see the intelligence of the stress response in its creative attempt to bring attention to what needs attending.  Stress will arise as the SOS signaller in the area where conflicts are occurring – family, marriage, work, community, Church and, most of all, self.  The specific stress symptom is designed to emphasise the particular conflict that needs resolution.  For example, back pain may indicate that the person afflicted is ‘taking too much on his back’ or that ‘his back is against the wall’ or that ‘he easily gets his back up at work’ or that he feels he has ‘no back up’.  A tension headache may be drawing attention to ‘wanting to be always a-head’ or ‘too much going on in one’s head’ or a situation that the person feels that they ‘are banging their head off a stone wall’.

In my experience, all human behaviour makes sense, and what people need is the support, the encouragement and the conflict-resolution skills to respond to the intelligent manifestation of stress response in their daily lives.  Stress calls for action to bring about well-being; it is an essential and wise mechanism.

Dr. Tony Humphreys is a clinical psychologist and author of ‘The Power of ‘Negative’ Thinking.