It’s become such an ubiquitous concept that it’s difficult to imagine how recent a term “stress” really is. When Hans Selye first proposed that all tension, all sources of anxiety created the same kind of reaction within the body it seemed ridiculous. And this was in the fifties to the best of my recollection. Of course now we all know that too much stress is bad for us and that stress is a factor in disease.
[So so many things that we take for granted – cardiac risk factors, prevention, stress – are such recent concepts. But we think they’ve been around since the year dot.]
Stress is hard on the immune system, affects us hormonally and causes muscle tension and fatigue. It gets in the way of sleep, which causes its own set of problems ranging from poor concentration to anxiety, and depresses normal pain signals. Which is why soldiers and athletes often don’t feel the pain of a major injury and it is only later that they realize they’ve damaged something.
Then there’s the good side of stress, or eustress. Without some stress we would have zero motivation, zero reason to excel or create. That’s why there’s that old graph showing how some stress is good before a major task, say an exam; with some stress performance gets better. But, if it gets too high then performance suffers.
Which we all know from our own experience.
Wandering around Paris what strikes me as well is the extent to which our actual, physical environment can create or reduce stress. When what is around us is beautiful, when we hear laughter, when the sun is shining – well, it’s hard to feel to unhappy or stressed. No accident that depressed areas inevitably are ugly.
It’s hard to be too stressed when one is a tourist in Paris, well, unless one tries too hard to make the French conform to one’s North American ideas of time, speed and interaction. Personally, something that I think is rather wonderful here is the very formal aspect of saying ‘bonjour’ whenever one walks into a place, any place. It is a way, I think, of humanizing the service person, the waiter, the person in the store. When one stops to say ‘bonjour madame’ or ‘bonjour monsieur’, one has to pause and look at the person and realize this person is not simply part of the scenery, they are an actual human being. It adds a touch of humanity to what is often a rather soulless encounter.
The French are currently pilloried for their dislike of capitalism, their failing economy, their rising youth unemployment. Several august bodies are miffed that in spite of all of this money markets still love France, which can borrow money at brilliantly low rates, which suggests they’re not worried about France’s future. There’s a palpable sense of outrage about this on the part of business writers, The Economist, various commentators – usually Anglo Saxon. Why? Why does everyone need to conform to the same ideas?
The French fought a revolution which had at its basis the value of the human being. Extreme wealth, especially ostentatious wealth, is frowned on in France. I can think of worse things.
In any event, given the stress we all experience when all we focus on is money and making more of it, it seems to me that the French are on to something.