I’ve made a resolution: I’m no longer using the following – stress, stressed, I feel stressed, stressed out. `Walk down any street in the world*, and you’ll invariably find at least 17 people on any street saying (often unsolicited) justhowmuchworkthey’redoing and justhowstressedtheyare. They’ve got 25 projects to complete before breakfast ! 5 families and 16 nieces and nephews to care for ! 6 social media networks full of adoring fans to attend to! No wonder they’re feeling the stress slowly limit their oxygen supply, a boa constrictor of cortisol.
Obviously I do get it. It’s the modern world, isn’t it? We have to work to live, and live to work. Well, I say ‘we’; I’m still a feckless student, and haven’t been sucked into the whole Capitalism Construct Dome yet. For me, insurance, bills, and the housing ladder are still but an amusing alternate universe, where real adults run around like headless chickens between one and the other, possibly exclusively for the amusement and disgust of those who still get ID’d buying alcohol. No, I am speaking entirely for myself – like a good narcissistic millenial.
Life at the University of Cambridge (o hallowèd halls) makes students particularly likely to Say They Are Very Stressed All The Time. Myself included. Generally, these statements make for pretty dull conversation, and don’t help anyone achieve anything much ; unless the aim was to reinforce this feeling of ‘stress’, by its articulation. Repeating feelings as if they were facts – ‘I am stressed’ – tends to consolidate them, bringing the swirling flotsam of the mind river into solid brick and mortar statement. Such a declaration also turns an abstract quality, stress, into a rather depressing characteristic of one’s personality. By banging on about your stress all the time, you start to understand yourself as a person whose personality is predicated around stress. You also become a person who constantly talks about being stressed all the time, a personality type which overlaps with the kind of person who is generally left alone in the corner at cocktail parties.
Now for the etymology bomb. ‘Stress’ is of Middle English origin, denoting hardship or force exerted on a person for the purpose of compulsion: it is a shortening of distress, and is derived from the Old French estresse ‘narrowness, oppression’, itself based on Latin strictus ‘drawn tight’. Back in 1936 stress was chosen by endocrinologist Hans Selye to express biological stress, which he defined as the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change. This definition came from years of doing the kinds of tests on animals that would make vegans feel a little queasy and yes, probably blog about feeling stressed.
Our friend Selye studied the physical responses in animals to uncomfortable stimuli: swelling of the adrenal cortex, atrophy of the thymus, gastric and duodenal ulcers. None of which sound like good dress-up themes for a 21st birthday party. However, to Selye’s dismay (presumably) the anxious citizens of the world soon stole and warped his precious interpretation, using ‘stress’ to refer to vague physical and / or emotional states that they perceived as the unpleasant results of an external agent – an overbearing boss, say, or an immediate deadline.
Linguistically, it is a fairly standard shift, not dissimilar to saying you are horrified when there is actually little in the way of ‘horror’, or ‘ecstatic’ when you’re not in a state of mystic absorption. It is nonetheless a little misleading to imply you are in danger from gastric ulcer due to some mean old scientist poking around in your cage, when really you’re just worried about an upcoming test.
In which case: say how you truly feel. Rather than yanking down the word ‘stress’ from the celestial dictionary as a blanket, cover-all term, it’s more useful to sit and identity what it is you are feeling. Tired? Anxious? Sad? These problems can be unpacked and perhaps even solved; whereas the vague, dull experience of ‘stress’ remains unarticulated and unspecific. For one, I’m usually* hungry.
Another helpful part of Selye’s definition is that it emphasises the role of an external agent in stimulating one’s physical unhappiness. If we too remember the importance of recognising a cause that is independent to us, we can put our energies to condemning those foreign factors. Instead of just looking inwards and feeling this ‘stress’, we can observe the force which produces it. Politically, this means organisation against unjust systems and oppressions: racism, sexism, austerity, war. For women in particular, such an insight is an act of feminism, so conditioned are we to self-blame, self-doubt, self-decry. This is one of my Dad’s messages to me – Blame The Patriarchy. Of course this applies not just to wider political movements, but to smaller problems too: a dodgy workplace, a teacher who sets too much work. Look out of your cage, and stare down the source of distress square in the eye.
*I was tempted here to say ‘in New York City’ or ‘Oxford’, but as we learn in school, it’s bad to promote stereotypes. Even if they’re true.
*Pretty much always need toast with jam.