Has the Meaning of Stress Changed - and so what if it has?

Jerry Kennard Health Pro
  • One way of monitoring the effects of particular lifestyle issues on health is to track them over a period of time. What complicates the issue is the fact that our lives don’t stand still. Massive changes in the way we work, our own expectations and the expectations of others, can all occur within the space of a few years.


    I was pleased to see these very issues acknowledged in a report from the University of Gothenburg. Researchers from the Sahlgrenska Academy have been following the progress of 1500 women since the late 1960s, monitoring the association between stress and psychosomatic symptoms (bodily symptoms caused or aggravated by stress). Psychosomatic symptoms such as headaches or migraines are well known associates of stress, but the extent and nature of psychosomatic symptoms in relation to stress is less well known.

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    The Gothenburg study reveals some interesting if not altogether unsurprising results. We learn that once their results were adjusted for smoking, body mass index and physical activity, a clear link emerges between the experience of stress and increased levels of psychosomatic symptoms.  Specifically, the incidence of stress was highest in the 40 to 60 age range with single women more likely to feel stress and more likely to smoke. Muscular and joint aches and pains were most commonly reported (40% of the sample) and gastrointestinal complaints, headaches and migraines made up a further 28% of reported symptoms.


    As Dominique Hange, one of the researchers points out, a great deal has changed since the late 1960s, so the problem here is whether the meaning of stress has also changed over time. Asking volunteers exactly the same questions does not guarantee a consistent interpretation. Plus of course our scientific understanding and interpretations of stress have also moved forward, so are we really in a position to compare like with like?


    I think it’s reasonable to point out a couple of significant changes over time. The first is that our understanding of the effects of stress is far more advanced and far more accepted today than it was just 40 years ago. Secondly, as Hange rightly observes, women’s lifestyles and work patterns have changed greatly, so the experience of stress may have changed accordingly.  


    Like me, anyone who was born pre-internet and mobile devices will appreciate how different the world is today. Actually, I can remember using a Gestetner copying machine in the 1970s because the new photocopy machine was about three miles away in another building. Now, like many others, I have mobile devices and a combined scanner and copying machine on my own desk. I suppose the point is, like other observers have commented, our ‘switch off’ time is increasingly being intruded upon. Precious few of us, I suspect, can honestly say we aren’t exposed to fairly consistent forms of stimulation during our waking hours, whether by work the TV, the internet, music or text messages.


    Whether or not the meaning of stress has changed our knowledge of its implications has increased and this, it seems to me, is far more important to our health and wellbeing.


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    University of Gothenburg (2013, June 3). Clear link between perceived stress and an increased incidence of psychosomatic symptoms. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 12, 2013, from http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2013/06/130603092450.htm

Published On: June 12, 2013