Mar 122009
 
Authors: Jason Kehe Daily Trojan USC

(U-WIRE) – If Newsweek’s recent cover story is any indication (“Stress Could Save Your Life,” Feb. 23), the once-venerable news weekly, led lamentably astray by incompetent leadership, is in a bad place financially as well as emotionally.

In what seems to be a last-ditch effort to energize abysmal sales, Newsweek has resorted to neo-yellow journalism. According to the magazine, stress can save our lives.

Forgive the skepticism.

For prehistoric bushmen fleeing from man-eating lions, stress probably could be a life-saver. For the rest of us – college students downing coffee in ill-advised late-night cramming sessions – stress is the bane of our existence.

This is only a clever ruse to energize sales, right? This is desperation talking, right?

Probably – but perhaps Newsweek knows something we don’t. Perhaps, just perhaps, they’re onto something.

Ever since we had to take mandatory health class in middle school, we’ve been told the same thing: Stress is bad. It can weaken the immune system, contribute to heart disease, mess with memory and so on and so forth.

“De-stressing” – that vague term for doing anything other than homework – has become a popular pastime for students everywhere, the implication being that we can somehow expel stress from the body through rest and relaxation. In fact, stress has become the scapegoat on which we invariably blame our woes. “I was so stressed I couldn’t focus” is a popular excuse for failure.

While we might overstress stress, we’re not wrong in trying to avoid it. Its adverse effects on health are real and well documented.

In this sense, Newsweek’s cover package is deceptive, and there is probably an element of sensationalism involved to try and get stressed-out people (Re: everyone) to buy a copy. There is no real earth-shattering reporting in the several stories on stress.

Sure, the writers give fancy scientific validity to claims that stress can, in certain circumstances, be beneficial, and one Harvard Medical School professor admits to “oversell[ing] stress as a medical problem.” Mary Carmichael suggests there might be something called “good stress” that, among other things, might lead to “posttraumatic growth.” It all sounds well and good, but it isn’t anything that’s particularly revelatory or reassuring.

But then, there is something reassuring about Newsweek’s cover package, something that has nothing to do with staving off falling sales. Like it or not, we’re in an economic depression. People are losing their jobs; families are being forced to make life-altering decisions.

Depression is a breeding ground for stress – stress of the worst kind, born of a nationwide feeling of impotence and helplessness. That stress, however, is what must drive us to find a way to that proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.

Carmichael writes, “We’re going to have to figure out what parts of our future we can control, and we’ll need to engage with them thoughtfully. Fortunately, we have the kind of brain that permits that. Sure, it will be stressful. Maybe that isn’t a bad thing.”

Maybe it isn’t such a bad thing, indeed. The phenomenon of working well under pressure is not so much an excuse for procrastination as it is a kind of controlled stress. We’re all under pressure all the time – the trick, writes Carmichael, is to learn “how to keep it from overrunning our lives.” The same can be said of the present situation. If we are to overcome this depression, we can’t let it overrun our lives.

Easier said than done. But what Newsweek is getting at – in addition to increased sales – is that the bad, in the right light, can be bent to the will of the good. It’s a simple concept but one this country sorely needs to grasp.

 Posted by at 5:00 pm

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