In the Blog

The stress case

June 30th, 2008     by Megan Griffith-Greene     Comments

I have a lot of stress. I have a day job, a secret identity as the editor of this very fine magazine, a whack of hobbies (some of which, like making wedding cakes, are a lot of work), a ton of great friends, a fantastic relationship, and at the end of the day, I still have to find time to cook, do laundry, and, once in a while, sleep. I’ve always been a “workaholic”, and so have many amazing, super-accomplished women I know. Leisure time, what’s that?

Of course, society has taught us all to believe that stress is harming us: it makes us more likely to get sick, and less likely to get a good night’s sleep, conceive a child and all kinds of good, healthy things. Which is why I enjoyed Peggy Orenstein’s column in last weekend’s New York Times Magazine. It makes the case that some of what we believe about stress is anti-feminist crap.

Orenstein takes issue with the idea that if you adopt a baby, somehow the pressure to conceive is all gone and many women who have had difficulty getting pregnant find themselves suddenly fertile (a la Charlotte in Sex and the City). It’s one of those things that women are told, perpetuating the Freudian assumption that if a woman can’t get pregnant, there must be some emotional reason. But it’s not actually true.

She takes the argument one step further, and looks at how stress is often loosely tied to illnesses that have complex, mysterious origins that aren’t well understood.

In the Victorian period, cancer was “caused” by excessive family obligations or hyper-emotionalism. In the 1970s it was “caused” by isolation and suppressed anger. So the assertion that stress underlies 99 percent of illness may indicate more about the healthy than the sick. Stress is our burden, our bogyman, and reducing it is the latest all-purpose talisman against adversity’s randomness.

In fact, as she points out, the opposite may be true: in a huge study of 6,500 women, researchers in Denmark found that those with high stress levels were actually 40% less likely to get breast cancer.

What this all does, of course, is blame women’s health on their ambition, on working their poor, delicate bodies and brains past their limited strengths. Termed that way, women I know would tell their doctor to get lost. But when it’s stated more loosely, stress as an undelying cause of illness seems to be a reasonable statement, even if it’s a message that’s primarily directed at women. Have a nap. Drink some tea. Take up yoga. You’ll feel better.

Just this spring, stress was explained as a reason for my bad Pap result. (As an aside, if you missed our column in the Fall 2007 issue, bad Paps do happen all the time and are usually no reason to panic.) I “It’s probably just stress,” the doctor said. I have stress, I thought, it makes sense.

Listen, I’m not saying that a holiday and a massage wouldn’t feel great, but the end of the day, I’d prefer to hear about how women are stronger, more energized by their work and their lives, because those stories reflect a lot of women I know. The idea that women should believe that their busy, full lives are to blame for any and all health issues — that just stresses me out.

Tags: body politics

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