ANOTHER VIEW

Bulging veins as status symbols

It is possible that there are people out there suffering stress from worrying that they are not suffering enough stress

CHARLES GORDON March 12 1990
ANOTHER VIEW

Bulging veins as status symbols

It is possible that there are people out there suffering stress from worrying that they are not suffering enough stress

CHARLES GORDON March 12 1990

Bulging veins as status symbols

ANOTHER VIEW

It is possible that there are people out there suffering stress from worrying that they are not suffering enough stress

CHARLES GORDON

Anybody with a car has had the experience: Driving along a city street, more or less obeying the speed limit, not dawdling, maybe going 60

when you should be going 50, and somebody is tailgating you. You glance in the rearview mirror at the offending driver and see The Look. It is the look of the Eighties, now carrying, it appears, into the Nineties. The driver looks worried, he looks angry, he looks tense, he looks like he’s in a terrible hurry. The veins are bulging in his forehead. He looks like he would kill you if he could.

The Look tells you of the terrible urgency with which some people live their lives. It is not that they are late for work when they tailgate you like that. You could be driving along a residential street at 2 in the afternoon and have the same thing happen. It could be Sunday morning, and people would still be running red lights, going through just after the yellow and just before they turn green the other way. The urgency is not caused by events. It is carried within.

We have given that inner urgency a name. It is called stress. By now, it is a famous name. For the stressed, there is no time to relax, to enjoy the drive, to leave some space behind the car in front. There is no pleasure in being away from the office, away from the phone. In fact, the guy with The Look may also be the guy with The Phone, one of those cellular jobs people carry with them in order not to waste a minute. When he leaves the car, he will take The Phone with him so that he can do something important, do business, instead of just walking down the street.

Strangely enough, the people who walk down the street talking on the phone don’t seem resentful of having to do it. Instead of kicking themselves for being so stressed that they can’t even window-shop a little bit, these victims of stress might even enjoy the image they are projecting of people too driven to stop and smell the espresso.

And why is that? Because we, as a society, have legitimized stress. First we gave it a name. Then we gave it a deluge of publicity. Four years ago, about the time stress hit big, there were 643 articles containing the word “stress” in The Ottawa Citizen. Last year, there were 813, of which only 22 also contained the word “fracture.” Last year, there were 67 uses of the word “stress” in headlines in The Toronto Star. That means about every five days a Toronto Star reader would be reminded of the stressfulness of his existence. Is it any wonder that people have become so stress-conscious they become stressed just thinking about it?

Stress, we read every day, comes from the pressures of everyday life, particularly work life. It is a jungle in there, we are told. The race is to the swift. We watch people yell and scream and wave pieces of paper at the stock market. We watch people eat lunch at their desks. We watch arguments over parking spaces.

Away from the workplace, we watch as people go into panic mode over housing, over tickets to Phantom of the Opera, over cottage real estate, over educational opportunities for their children. Are these people ashamed of

themselves for jostling each other in lineups, neglecting to say hello when they pass their friends in the street and having bulging veins in their foreheads? Not at all. In fact, many people probably like the idea of stress. They like to think of themselves as stressed people. It means, according to what our mass communications have been telling them, that they are trying hard, that they are fighting the odds. Conversely, if they are not stressed, it means that they are doing something wrong in their lives.

It is possible that there are people out there suffering stress from worrying that they are not suffering enough stress.

The newfound popularity of stress extends far past the workplace. Jogging—now usually called running—is less a romp in the park than a calculated assault on physical unfitness, complete with gadgets to measure heart rate and blood pressure. The Sunday afternoon bike ride has given way to a frantic 12-speed roaring-about conducted by sweaty people wearing spandex shorts and The Look. Stress is all around us, not least in the hearts of the Sunday strollers and puppy dogs forced off the path.

It has been clear for quite some time now that stress is not good for us. But because we have legitimized it, not everyone is going to pay attention to that fact. It is even possible that we have gone beyond legitimizing stress and have romanticized it. Stress is like alcohol and tobacco—recognized as harmful, yet seen as necessary by some. Just as generations of creative writers grew up thinking that alcoholism equalled creativity, so generations of business and professional people, students and athletes have come to think that stress equals effectiveness.

We can probably pinpoint the current Stress Era as beginning with Reaganism and Thatcherism—the renewal of the idea that it was good to compete, essential to win, and nothing to feel ashamed of if you happened to get your elbows up in a good cause. Furthermore, the measure of a person’s worth was, once again, money. All of a sudden, it became all right to pursue money, and a great disadvantage, bordering on disgrace, not to have it.

The notion of money as a measure of value is a stressful one, particularly for those who think they don’t have enough of it—a group that includes most of the people on the planet. It puts an urgency into lives, causes desktop lunches, outdoor telephoning and rear-end collisions. It is not pleasant to ponder what the offspring of the stressed will be like when they grow up. Already, we are seeing some of the signs, in the relentless materialism of teenage consumers, in the fear and trembling that accompany university applications.

What is needed now, if we are not to have a second consecutive Stress Decade, is the acceptance of an older notion—that it is okay not to suffer stress; that it is acceptable to relax; that it is not fatal to be out of phone contact for hours, even days; and that there is nothing inherently virtuous in having the veins bulge on your forehead.