Stress Can Be Bad, No Matter the Semantics

Stress: common and expected, not necessarily bad for you. On the other hand, it often becomes problematic.

Much of it occurs in the workplace. As researcher John Medina explains in his book Brain Rules, stress can contribute to both depression and anxiety. Bruce Rosenstein (USA Today) summarizes Medina’s “Rule No. 8”:

Stressed brains don’t learn the same way. People are routinely put under stress at work, yet studies have proved it to be counterproductive and costly. Medina writes: ‘Stress attacks the immune system, increasing employees’ chances of getting sick. Stress elevates blood pressure, increasing the risk of heart attack, stroke and autoimmune diseases.’ That increases absenteeism and health care and pension costs.

A large factor in the experience of stress is control, Medina notes. “The less you feel in control, the more likely you are to experience the type of stress that can hurt learning.”

How do you know if you’re under too much of the wrong kind of stress? One tool is The Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, or Social Readjustment Rating Scale (SRSS), created in 1967 by two psychiatrists.

A widely used instrument since then, it has not been without criticism over the years—for example, for not taking various cultures into consideration or for not including factors other than life events. At the very least, though, it can be useful for visualizing life’s problems quantitatively. For example, “death of a spouse,” at 100 points, is at the very top, ranked right above the 73-pointer “divorce“—this idea alone, i.e., that one specific loss is more stressful than the other, however, has been debatable.

But maybe we focus too much on individuals experiencing stress and not enough on the larger society. In One Nation Under Stress: The Trouble with Stress as an Idea, therapist Dana Becker addresses stressism, “the current belief that the tensions of contemporary life are primarily individual lifestyle problems.”

Alexander Nazaryan, New Republic, summarizes Becker’s views in this regard:

…Becker is especially adamant that the things we point to as the causes of stress actually stem from identifiable, concrete social or economic problems. She takes to task, for example, Andrew Solomon for writing in The New York Times Magazine that ‘poverty is depressing.’ The issue for the poor is money, not serotonin; gay youth don’t need alleviation from stress, but tough penalties for bullies. She even applies this logic, carefully, to PTSD, making the point that war is hell, not stress. There are 175 ways to diagnose PTSD, and some 20,000 troops in Afghanistan and Iraq were on meds for ‘temporary stress injuries’ and ‘stress illnesses’ by 2008. These men and women may well need help, yet stress, in the end, winds up being a too-easy explanation of why we fight, who does the fighting for us, and how we make sure those fighters are integrated healthfully back into peacetime society.

Becker’s tired as well of the person-centered term “issues.” As she states in a Psychology Today post:

Is it an accident that ‘issue’ has taken on an increasingly personal meaning at a time when our political system seems blanketed in permafrost, and big-ticket social and political issues like income inequality appear virtually insoluble? I think I’m beginning to understand why ‘issues’ has been sticking in my craw. For one thing, I find the inexorable march from the political to the personal really troublesome. But there’s another problem (yes, I did say problem): if everyone has issues, then nobody’s got issues. And I take issue with that.

Many of us these days readily cop to a number of “issues.” One client told me even her “issues had issues.” My own blog tagline used to be “Therapists have issues too.”  My point? Becker’s got a point.

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