Stress and Workaholism:
Facts of Modern Life?
By Bob Murray, PhD
OK so you feel stressed-out. You and most of humanity at some stage in their lives.
You know when you feel stressed, you know the symptoms, right? Pulsating heart, sweat,
shaking, you've seen them in all the movies. Yeah! You know stress!
Well the experts can't agree, despite the millions of words written on the subject and
the billions of dollars spent on research, exactly what stress is, or what causes it,
how much stress you need, or how to rid yourself of the stress you don't need. Modern
research indicates that stress is a syndrome, a collection of diverse symptoms with
multiple causes, biochemical, prenatal and environmental. On the most basic level
researchers can't agree whether stress is reactive (e.g. you fail an exam so you get
stress) or causative (e.g. you failed the exam because you were prone to stress) or a
mixture of both (you weren't going to pass that exam anyway).
The most recent findings indicate that it can be both causative and reactive depending
on the stressor and the individual's proneness to stress in general.
Unlike depression, stress does not seem to have an easily identifiable single neurochemical
basis and, except in extreme cases, the most successful treatments are non-pharmaceutical.
Yet stress and depression are linked in many intricate ways, as researchers are now
finding. Maybe the propensity to some forms of stress is a symptom of an underlying
depression. Maybe we should begin to see stress as a symptom of something else, not as
a problem in itself. But a symptom of what?
Some very interesting research has been done at Rutgers University Dept. of Anthropology
which has linked stress to the 'mismatch' between our present society and that of our
stone-age ancestors. According to this view, the further we get from our hunter-gatherer
way of doing things the more stressed we become. (How many Neanderthals took exams?
How many drove down busy freeways? How many had a council of elders consisting of
George Bush and his cabinet? How many spent all day in front of a computer?)
At a seminar recently I coined the phrase 'the tyranny of ends' to characterise certain
aspects of modern existence. We tend increasingly to do things that we really don't
like doing in order to achieve something else which, in the long term we feel (or our
parents felt) is more worthwhile. We become fixated with the 'end result' of what we
are doing. To a hunter-gatherer (such as the ones I have observed in Southern Africa)
life is about process, there are no 'end results'. We modern humans want to 'achieve'
things and judge ourselves on the basis of what we have 'achieved'. We judge others on
the basis of what they have achieved. We cannot live for the day, for the moment. We
don't give ourselves the option of changing what we do when we no longer enjoy the
process of doing it.
A very wise teacher of mine once said "Only do that which you enjoy the process of doing."
It is a bit of advice that I pass on to my clients when they come to me and complain
about the stress they are under at their jobs. And we should all take heed: 72% of all
workers have frequent stress related physical and mental conditions according to several
According to the Rutgers' research we cope with stress in general better if we can do
more hunter-gatherer-like things. Well, of course, the woolly mammoths have all died
out, sabre-toothed tigers no longer prowl the plains of North America and the giant
kangaroos are all gone. It's impractical for us all to divest ourselves of our city suits
or our agricultural machines and become stone-age denizens. There are too many of us to
But we can hook into that less stressed way of life. The thing to remember is that human
beings are social animals (something we stress in our Uplift Program,
which teaches people to overcome stress, depression and anxiety). We are only
really true to our nature when we are engaging in social activities.
Males and females of our species have different non-stressing ways of socializing.
With women one way is shopping in the company of women friends. Shopping, for women, is like
gathering, to be done slowly in an unstructured way and accompanied by gossip.
A British study published last year found that group shopping lowers women's stress
level by up to 25%, while with men the situation is entirely different. A man entering
a busy shop with a high noise level experiences a rise in his blood pressure (a sure
test of stress) equivalent to that experienced by a fighter pilot going into combat.
One great stress-reducing activity for a man, especially if he is under 35, is playing
team sport or watching a game in the company of his mates. This is the nearest thing
to the hunt that most of us males will experience. Something of the same release from
stress can be got from working as a team where the project is within the control of the
members of the team (a work environment structure that was pioneered by Volvo in Sweden).
Another way of gauging our susceptibility to stress is to look at the way we came
into the world. A research team at the Chelsea Hospital in London announced in January
of last year the results of a study which linked tolerance to stress with the birth
method used. They found that caesarean babies coped better with stress. Those born by
assisted delivery with the aid of forceps coped the worst and infants born by natural
delivery were in between. The difference seems to lie in the differing levels of the
stress hormone cortisol which the trauma of birth produced.
However before all you expectant mums sign up for C-sections, bear in mind that this
method of birth has risks too. Caesarean babies have been found to be more prone to
develop schizophrenia later in life. Better to be stressed than schizoid.
Early painful experiences such as circumcision also seem to lead to a pronounced reaction
to certain stressors in adult life.
Other probable causes of a high propensity to stress include having a mother who is prone
to stress. Several recent studies have shown that stress and anxiety in a mother-to-be
leads to a high level of stress-related chemicals, such as noradrenaline in the
blood-stream of her foetus. Maybe the Surgeon-General should issue a warning regarding
stress and pregnancy along with those regarding tobacco and alcohol. Depression can also
be passed along via this route, another of the close and interesting connections between
the two conditions.
Put simply, a mother-to-be living in an unstable, unpredictable or abusive environment
is liable to give birth to a child who will not handle stress very well.
Parental alcoholism and stress are closely linked (as are parental alcoholism and
depression there's that stress/depression link again, where's my pen to fill in the
application for the research grant?).
And stress, however it originates, can be a killer. As long ago as 1936, Hans Selye,
a physician, introduced the general adaption syndrome, a description of the body's
reaction to sustained stress. With modifications it is still used today. The essence
of his theory is that there are three phases in the body's reaction to stress. Firstly
there is an alarm reaction in the brain which sends out messages to activate the
sympathetic nervous system (the one which gets us ready to cope with danger). If the
stress is too powerful (e.g. a man cannot get out of the noisy shop, or he is faced
with the daily prospect of losing his job) certain organs of the body (the cardio-vascular
system, the gastrointestinal tract, the stomach etc) develop problems. During the
second phase, resistance, the organism adapts to the stress using the available coping
mechanisms. If the stressor persists those organisms will be unable to respond
effectively. A third stage, exhaustion follows and the organism dies or suffers
We now also know that in times of severe and persistent stress the cells of our bodies
can literally commit suicide, a process called apoptosis. Some researchers see this as
a cause of dementia in the elderly. What used to be called senile decay is really the
premature death of neurons, or brain cells. If enough of them die (we start off life
with over a trillion of them) we lose function, reasoning, memory or movement (a stroke
is the sudden demise of neurons). In tn the elderly the trauma which is the probable
cause of apoptosis in the brain is the loss of meaning in their lives, the lack of a
role in society. This is an extreme stressor.
In a hunter-gatherer band individuals became more valuable as they aged, they were the
repository of tribal wisdom, they were looked up to, revered. They were members of the
council of elders. Now the wisdom is stored in computer memory banks and we park our
older citizenry out of the way and begrudge the money we spend keeping them alive.
The slow suicide of the brain can begin when a man retires or a woman sees her children
and her grandchildren move away. The roles in life which gave them purpose are taken
from them and according to this theory the trauma causes cell-death and dementia.
I personally believe these researchers are on the right track.
Its important to remember that not all stress is bad for you. Even hunter-gatherers had
to put up with stressful events the sudden appearance of a sabre-tooth tiger, a
drought, flash floods, the death of a loved one. Indeed, in order to keep ourselves
healthy and vital on the cellular level we need a certain number of stressors. Our
distant ancestors coped with these stresses by using rituals and group support, tools
we have largely lost. It's the long-term, persistent and socially induced stresses
which are the disablers and the killers.
So what's the answer to this type of stress? How do we avoid it and reduce it? Here are
some ideas culled our Uplift Program.
- Meditation is an obvious tool in coping with stress. Deep meditation slows down the
entire metabolism of the body and can help us to see stressful events in a different
light. A by-product is that it enables you to live longer.
- Feldenkrais Awareness-through-Movementreg; exercises, or our own Repatterning Movementsreg;
not only are good for stress-reduction but can enormously aid in keeping your body
supple and youthful (see our audio-programs).
- Make 'to-do' lists. These lists should not contain the projects you never get around to,
only the tasks you are pretty sure you will do. At the end of each day you must tick
off what you have done. This activity can enable you to take charge of your life and
avoid the feeling of lack of control which leads to stress (and depression. Where the
HECK is my pen !?).
- Take regular exercise not jogging or aerobics (great for endorphin release and
'runner's high', but not much good for long-term stress reduction). Walk for an hour a day,
take up swimming or bicycling.
- Take mini-vacations and limit your work-day to eight hours or less. Long working hours are
a sure-fire stress producer. Hunter-gatherers worked an average of 8 hours a week!
- Reduce your caffeine intake (take lots of water and caffein-free drinks).
- Develop routines, bonding rituals, and games (the sillier the better) with your family.
- Spend more time socializing. Get off that computer and go talk to someone in the flesh.
Meeting over the Internet is, at best, what we in the trade call a 'secondary socializing
activity' indicating that it doesn't do you so much good as personal contact.
- Try to organize your life so that you only do things you enjoy the process of doing. It is
better to enjoy an activity than to try to be the best at it. Try to get rid of the 'tyranny of ends'.
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About the Author
Dr Bob Murray is a widely published psychologist and expert on emotional health and optimal relationships. Together with his wife and long-term collaborator Alicia Fortinberry, he is founder of the highly successful Uplift Program, and author of Raising an Optimistic Child (McGraw-Hill, 2006) and Creating Optimism (McGraw-Hill, 2004).
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