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Myths about stress abound

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Stress is seemingly everywhere, a reaction to woes as disparate as war-induced trauma and the battle against rush-hour traffic. Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil say too much of it can be hazardous to our health, and we’re inundated with stress-management advice. Life coaches talk about working toward emotional fitness, as if we can perform Pilates on our psyches. But some ideas about stress and its risks are simply wrong.

1. Getting enough sleep, exercising and eating right can reduce stress.

To borrow from Bill Clinton, the answer depends on what the meaning of the word "stress" is. We use the term to refer to unsettling conditions or situations, such as unemployment, as well as the experience of being unsettled — feeling anxious or overwhelmed.

While it’s true that taking care of ourselves can help us feel good, steamed broccoli and 30 minutes on the elliptical won’t come close to mitigating stress. If that’s our goal, we’d be better off defining stress in terms of those unsettling conditions rather than our internal states.

Instead, people seem to be preoccupied with managing the effects of stress. The message from everyone — doctors, personal trainers, psychotherapists, even our mothers — is that if we can fix our stressed-out selves, we can handle pretty much anything. It’s a solution that neglects the causes of stress and one that’s often available only to the middle class on up. Eating her fruits and veggies, even if she can get them at a decent price in her neighbourhood, won’t do much for the single mother who has three children, an hour-long, multi-bus commute and an angry boss who can easily find another employee if this one shows up late.

2. Stress makes people more vulnerable to illness.

The media reports that chronic stress can "shrink our brains" and even kill us. Physicians sometimes inflate the connection between stress and cardiovascular disease, and psychologists can overemphasize the link between stress and depression — so we end up thinking that any amount of stress might harm our health.

But when psychology professors Suzanne Segerstrom and Gregory Miller analyzed more than 300 studies on stress and immune system functioning, they didn’t find any evidence that stress makes otherwise healthy people susceptible to illness. In fact, they concluded that the immune system is extremely flexible and can handle even fairly large amounts of stress without going out of whack. This is less true for people who are under chronic stress, for the elderly or for people who are already ill. But stress can produce fairly dramatic changes in the immune system without necessarily causing people to get sick.

3. Most people who are exposed to traumatic events develop post-traumatic stress disorder.

In 2004, as the Iraq war was heating up, a Navy psychiatrist said: "We do not want to pathologize combat stress... Individuals are not patients... [Combat stress is] a relatively normal reaction by a normal person to an abnormal, horrific situation." If soldiers with PTSD aren’t patients, why do military personnel continue to describe PTSD as a stress injury or a stress illness? Comparing the psychological effects of war to broken bones or the flu certainly makes them seem easier to cure.

The idea that PTSD is a normal reaction to abnormal events has been gaining popularity since the mid-1980s. But most people who have been through traumatic events don’t develop PTSD. Although about 60 per cent of U.S. adults say they have had at least one traumatic experience, the average prevalence of PTSD is between 6.8 per cent and 7.8 per cent.

We can’t call PTSD a normal reaction and a psychiatric disorder at the same time. Of course, if we accepted more forms of suffering as normal, as many cultures do, rather than calling more and more human problems mental disorders, we wouldn’t be faced with this conundrum.

4. Men and women respond to stress differently because of genetic and hormonal differences.

For more than a decade, differences in women’s and men’s responses to stress have been linked to oxytocin, a hormone that is released during and after a mother gives birth. Research on rodents suggesting that oxytocin may encourage mothers to behave protectively toward their young when under stress has been used to buttress the claim that men and women naturally respond to stress differently.

John Gray, the author of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, has run amok with this research, calling oxytocin the "cuddle hormone" and insisting that taking care of children, doing the laundry, cooking and cleaning are "oxytocin-producing" and therefore stress-reducing for women, but not for men. I don’t think many women find it relaxing to cuddle up to the refrigerator at the end of the day, but maybe I’m living on Saturn.

We can reliably conclude one thing about gender differences in stress response: Women and men act differently when they are under stress. But, as West Virginia University epidemiologist Sarah Knox has found, this isn’t the same as saying that men and women have different hormonal responses. Even some neuroscientists have warned against interpreting biological differences as evidence of distinct genetic hard-wiring.

Biology has as much to do with our experiences as it does with our genes. If Gray spent enough time in the kitchen, maybe his oxytocin would eventually follow him there.

5. If women learn to cope better with stress, they’ll be able to resolve work-family conflict.

Since the 1970s, when middle-class women began entering the workforce in large numbers (low-income women, of course, have always worked outside the home), they’ve been deluged with advice about how to manage the stress of combining paid work with family responsibilities. Too much of the work-life balance debate is focused on women’s illusory choices: If we can work part-time, have flexible schedules or work from home, we’ll be OK. And if Mommy’s OK, everybody else will be OK, too.

But there’s something wrong here. Work and family aren’t having a conflict; it’s work and workplace policies, work and limited child-care options that are at odds. The conflict is between family and work as king and fit only for kings — that is, work designed for men with wives at home. And it’s related to the fact that parental caregiving is an unpaid and undervalued activity.

If we stop treating stress — and women’s stress in particular — as the problem to be solved and instead work for the kinds of social and political changes that will benefit women, men and children, maybe then we can find a real solution for women’s "stress."

Dana Becker, a professor of social work at Bryn Mawr College, is the author of One Nation Under Stress: The Trouble With Stress as an Idea.

—The Washington Post

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