Selling Sickness 2013


I (LT) have an international houseguest and am all stressed out about getting the WiFi working and finding three pronged plugs. It’s stressful to guess about the right stuff for breakfast and I’m already stressing over whether he will remember to pick up my mail when I leave for the weekend. Stress- the source – is ubiquitous, as is stress – the experience, or emotion or psychosomatic condition.

OK, fine, modern life is complicated – BUT – adding fuel to the fire are the wealth of media threats about the physical and mental health consequences if stress gets the best of you. Think type-A, think trauma. Since when did the everyday ups and downs of life become a source of ill-health, requiring self-monitoring, advanced coping skills, and even medical management?

Dana Becker offers us some answers in a thoughtful new book, “One Nation Under Stress: The Trouble with Stress as an Idea” (Oxford, 2013). She takes on subjects including stress and work/life balance, posttraumatic stress disorder, and how research on stress is used to rationalize social inequality. The book is full of good stories.

Becker’s primary insight has to do with how the ubiquitous stress-talk focuses excessively on individual reactions and interventions and deflects attention away from social structures and institutions which are actually the cause of most of our problems. “Stress gives us a way to talk with each other about our troubles at the same time as it keeps our travails uniquely our own.” (p. 183) We become responsible for getting the proper amount of yoga into our lives to balance poverty, illness, and the memories of being in combat, as if such a thing were possible. And when we can’t, we’re blamed.

Using Becker’s work to examine the history of stress-talk and the individualization of stress-management is a good way to examine some of the less obvious forms of medicalization and selling sickness.

P.S. After this was written, I learned of an article the same day in USA Today called “All stressed out? Businesses will sell you some peace” Huge industries in relaxation drinks and luxury massage chairs (who knew?) not to mention techie goggles with light and music to help you achieve the most peaceful state of consciousness. No quote from Dana Becker, alas.

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