Another day, another myth

  • Derek Roger

During the 1950s and 60s two US Naval surgeons noticed a relationship between the number of things that had happened to people and their tendency to become ill. The relationship is in fact negligible, but based on dubious psychological science these observations were formalised as life-event scales – lists of things that might have happened to you, and the task is to tick all of the ones that have actually happened to you over the past say 6 months. The more ticks the more stressed you’re supposed to be.

These fundamentally flawed ideas have become so embedded in our culture that if anyone moves house they’re convinced they must be stressed. If all these things on life-event scales were inherently stressful then stress would be unavoidable, and for every person who says that moving house stresses them there’ll be another who looks forward to it.

The latest in this catalogue of myths is that worrying will help you recover from acute cardiovascular conditions (published in Anxiety Disorders Association of America, and reported in The Press, 13th April). From one perspective this might make some sense, since a degree of cardiovascular stimulation could well promote recovery, but can you imagine being told to ‘go home and worry for 10 minutes a day’? What’s your experience of worry? When did you last have an unfinished project and decided to worry about it for 10 minutes, after which you simply returned to the job?

Worry is the same as rumination, which is precisely how stress is defined in The Challenge of Change Resilience programme. And what we know from our own research at the University of York in the UK as well as innumerable studies by other research teams is that ruminating has devastating consequences on cardiovascular and immune function. Some cardiovascular demand might be useful; worry is not, because it is not something that can be prescribed in dosages like a drug.

The article acknowledges other explanations, such as worriers being more likely to take medication regularly and be more diligent about doing what they’ve been told to do, but all of these things can be done without worry – worrying can hardly be re-cast as a benefit on these grounds. To give The Press its due, they do include the appropriate qualifiers in reporting unsubstantiated theories: ‘worrying-type anxiety could be protective’; ‘it could be that worriers…’.

However, the media would do a far greater service to the public by bringing their own common sense to bear. Perhaps a suitable disclaimer: ‘Contrary to established evidence, this publication offers a speculative theory that…’. Because someone is a doctor or a professor doesn’t mean they’re infallibly right: doctors doctor things, professors merely profess. How much magical thinking might we have been spared if the notion of ‘life-events’ had been treated in this way from the start.

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