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DON'T GET STRESSED OUT ABOUT STRESS

The stress industry has wrestled most of us to the floor and is breaking our arm. "Are you tense, worried, overworked, fatigued, frustrated and hassled?" it asks. "That's stress!" My grandmother would have said, "That's life," but that was before psychology transmogrified everyday feelings and problems into disorders and pathologies.

You can't be sad or worried anymore, for instance; you're "depressed" or "anxious." You can't be merely tired, because of dealing with a house, a job, a dog, a spouse and two children under the age of 4; you have "chronic fatigue syndrome." You don't have bad working conditions, lack of day care or low pay; you have "job stress," as if that explained something.We can't even calm down on our own; we need meditation training or relaxation therapy, which used to be called "resting." No one seems to think it is odd that the experts have managed to take away something that people do naturally and sell it back to us as a commodity.

What I do object to about the stress industry is that it often seems to be advocating all-purpose solutions to all-purpose "stresses." Life is never this neat. Given an irritating situation, people have a minimum of three choices right off the bat: Fix the problem, change your way of thinking about the problem or live with the problem.

Relaxation is a good way to manage choice No. 3; it lowers the blood pressure, reduces tension and soothes the soul. But it's not the solution to everything - or even to most things. In one study of 230 working women, for example, the strongest predictor of depression, anxiety and stress (that modern trio) was difficulty at work. And the form of coping that helped most was not relaxation, not even exercise but ... dealing with the job problems directly.

But, ever optimistic about advances in the war on stress, media stories keep advising us on how to "cope" with stress or "control" it. Yet, according to sociologist Cynthia Fuchs Epstein, these message are neither neutral nor dispensed equally to all.

Affluent white males are, on the whole, a lot less "stressed" or at risk of illness than most of their employees or than single mothers, but their problems get the attention (and research funds). Similarly, Epstein notes, the advice that is dispensed to the stressed multitudes varies: Businessmen are advised to meditate and take more vacations; businesswomen are advised to stop trying to be super-mothers and go home to their children, where they learn quickly how unrelaxing motherhood is.

I think we should dump the word "stress" altogether, or at least give it a breather and replace it with the word "problem."

That would clarify what the matter is with a person, as well as imply a solution. For instance, if a friend says to you, "Gee, I've been under a lot of stress lately," you could say, "What a shame; have you tried relaxing, jogging, watching funny movies or taking naps?" But if your friend says, "Gee, I have a problem; I'm about to be evicted because I can't come up with the rent," you wouldn't dream of advising a nap, because it would be wildly inappropriate.

Nonetheless, there is one stress-reduction technique that would definitely benefit most Americans: learning to relax about our failings and flaws. This would mean abandoning the quest for perfection, including the perfect method of coping with stress, or, as my grandmother would have said, with life. That alone would reduce our stress quotient by 100 percant at least.