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Stress and WaPo’s “5 Myths”

Normally the Washington Post’s Sunday “5 myths” article is highly topical. Thus last week “Five myths about a government shutdown” had been ready to go several days in advance, in anticipation of Congress not being able to reach a deal so as to avoid a shutdown on March 27. Trouble was, Congress did reach a deal, and before last Sunday. No problem, WaPo simply whipped up “Five myths about Chinese hackers.” certainly a subject that’s been in the news, and ran it instead.

BTW, that’s not the only substitution the editors made for last Sunday. They killed a straightforward article about the media failures at the beginning of the Iraq War that had been assigned to Greg Mitchell, who has a book on the subject, in favor of a wishy-washy piece by their in-house media beat hack, Paul Farhi.

All this is why today’s offering, “Five myths about stress,” is surprising in two ways. First, while stress is certainly an issue in our times, it’s not on the front page. Second, the article is actually pretty good.

The author is Dana Becker from the Social Work Department of Bryn Mawr College, who has a lot of experience in psychotherapy and family therapy. She is also the author of a brand-new book with the intriguing title One Nation Under Stress: The Trouble With Stress as an Idea (New Republic review). Her introduction today notes that “stress” is everywhere and that everyone today including Drs. Oz and Phil is talking about the need to reduce it. Then here are the “myths”:

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

Here Becker notes that this statement needs to clarify that is talking about “stress” as subjective feelings, not objective conditions of life. For:

Eating her fruits and veggies, even if she can get them at a decent price in her neighborhood, 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.

Well said imo.

2. Stress makes people more vulnerable to illness.

Not so, says an impressive article Becker cites, which analyzes 300 empirical studies that relate at least one objective measure of stress to at least one measure of the immune system. Its conclusion, according to Becker, is that “they didn’t find any evidence that stress makes otherwise healthy people susceptible to illness.” I’m not going to disagree.

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

Admittedly I don’t get out much these days, but this sounds suspiciously like one of the straw men that were a regular feature of the 5 myths articles I’ve written about prior to the piece two weeks ago, but was dispensed with there. I don’t know who really believes the proposition. And here Becker confusingly merges the question with the issue of whether or not PTSD is properly described as an injury or illness as opposed to a normal reaction to abnormal events. She seems to favor less pathologizing of such reaction without being definitive about it, although as to the question she claims that statistics don’t bear it out. Fine, I guess.

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

This segment is largely a clever putdown of pop author John Gray (of Men, Mars; Women, Venus fame). Becker says he has “run amok” (without giving a citation) with research on mice which seems to show that the female hormone oxytocin helps mothers behave protectively toward their young when under stress, to claim that doing household chores and taking care of children is therapeutic against stress in women but not in men. To this she cites some authorities asserting that not all differences between men and women are hormonal, and says, “if Gray spent enough time in the kitchen, maybe his oxytocin would eventually follow him there.” Delicious.

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

Becker really lays into this one. Noting the deluge of advice middle-class women (whom she is careful to distinguish from low-income women who have always had to work) have received about “balancing work and family” since they went back to work in droves beginning in the 1970s, she correctly says that it’s not work and family that are in conflict, but work and workplace policies, or work and limited child-care options. She then concludes the article with:

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.”

It is true that Becker does not get into how the situation that needs to change is related to the profit motive in this article, but others can do that. To me it is sufficient that she handily demystifies the subject of “stress” (despite some lack of clarity on myth #3). I know I won’t have time for it, but her new book is one of the few I’ve heard of lately that sound like something I’d like to read.

Good show, WaPo (but don’t let it go to your head).

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