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Stress in the 21st Century

Stress is associated with a number of physical conditions including back-pain, susceptibility to viruses, chronic fatigue syndrome and autoimmune disease. Richard O'Connor. author of Undoing Perpetual Stress : The Missing Connection Between Depression, Anxiety and 21st Century Illness, argues that our bodies are not designed to cope with the stresses of the modern world. O'Connor (2005: 13) goes so far as to state that:

"With the exception of some rare conditions like schizophrenia and manic depression, most 'mental illness' is the result of stress acting on a vulnerable individual - the effect of a lifetime of common human misery."

He notes, moreover, that some kind of stressful event usually triggers the appearance of schizophrenia and manic depression - conditions that are generally considered to be biologically based. Stress is also the underlying cause of so-called 'psychosomatic illnesses', according to O'Connor. The illnesses we have today may be the result of genetic disposition plus the consequences of stressful conditions, possibly dating back to childhood. He contends that (2005: 17):

"... all these problems - anxiety, depression, addiction, nonspecific illness, personality extremes, and much of the worry that besets all of us - are all tips of the same iceberg, all manifestations of our response to the stresses of contemporary life, all connected beneath the surface, all reinforcing and buttressing each other. Contemporary research shows that you can't fully recover from any of these conditions by focusing on the symptoms. You have to change the way you live."

Unfortunately, if O'Connor is to be believed, that is too difficult for most of us. Instead, we enter into vicious circles where stress is met with more of the same behaviour that made us stressed in the first place. Worry and depression both make the situation worse. Our ways of dealing with the symptoms also compound the problem - taking prescribed or over-the-counter drugs, sleeping pills, alcohol and illegal drugs do not make the underlying cause go away. In fact, they can make the problem worse.

O'Connor (2005: 20) identifies the components of the vicious circle:

  • The constant stress puts us into a continuous 'fight or flight' mode that cannot be turned off.
  • We try to deny that we are under stress until it is no longer possible to ignore the fact.
  • We have natural psychological defences but these often operate through denial and distortion of reality. We didn't get that job because the boss was too stupid to see how good we were (not).
  • If we blame ourselves, we get ill. If we blame other people, we cause friction at work or at home - and that leads to more stress.
  • We lose touch with reality, and we cope even less well.

We may start regarding ourselves as victims, and even if we do not, the 'perpetual stress response' (O'Connor's term) leads to a nasty and continuous dose of stress hormones in our bodies. And putting pills into our systems is not a solution.

O'Connor's solution is to produce an adaptive spiral, a rewiring of the brain to develop positive coping attitudes and behaviours that make us feel better about ourselves, more confident and able to deal constructively with stressful conditions.

Articles about Stress at Work on HRM Guide

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