I lifted the lid of the photocopier only to find a page already there, as you do. On the page was a graph illustrating the relationship between pressure and ability to cope, and the unusual word rustout. Under pressure to copy something else, I coped by binning it.
Later, it got me thinking. A similar graph appears on page 8 of How to Deal with Stress by Stephen Palmer and Cary Cooper. Here’s a simplified adaptation of it:
The points it is illustrating are that:
- Stress is not the same as pressure.
- When there is too much external pressure, it causes the subjective experience and symptoms of stress.
- When there is too little external pressure, it causes a subjective experience and symptoms like depression.
- There is an optimum amount of external pressure that maximises one’s ability to cope, balancing stress against apathy.
And a further point made in the accompanying text, but not illustrated in the graph, is that:
- The optimum is different for different people.
Some people thrive on a lot of pressure, while others thrive when there’s very little pressure on them. (This can be important for team-building in business, because different people will come into their own at different phases of a project cycle.)
All this stuff is pretty well known, though people often need to be reminded. For example, the generally fascinating (but sometimes annoyingly large print) Police Mental Health blog by Jeff Shannon in San Francisco, in the recent post Bureaucracy v.s. The Guy who First Starting Playing this Game, lists some of the stressors (pressures) on police officers:
Lack of leadership.
He points out that fighting the bureaucracy can make cops give up their initial idealism about the job. They redefine themselves and just “spin their wheels” so as to reduce the pressure, but, he reminds them:
Like you, I didn’t become a cop to spin my wheels. I became a cop to have an exciting, challenging career and to MAKE A DIFFERENCE. How does an officer who has lost this desire to make a difference get it back?
He has four pieces of advice about what to do:
1. Have at least two support people on your “team.” These are workmates who really get it and who will allow you to scream, “This place is sooooo fucked up!!” Use your teammates liberally…
2. Challenge. This is where you make it a game. You want to win the game, right? …
3. Control. Related to challenge, control is when you don’t give the bureaucracy a chance to ding you…
4. Commitment. Keep your eye on the ball… Remind yourself about the reasons you got into police work.
So, again, this is not about making the pressure go away. For the kind of cop who wants to be challenged and to make a difference, reducing the pressure to none at all — just spinning the wheels — is not the answer.
One of the controversial aspects of the draft version 5 of the American diagnostic manual, DSM-5 is the way that in some contexts it rejects this concept of an optimum that’s different for different individuals. Instead, in some places, it proposes diagnostic scales that don’t match most people’s normal everyday experience.
For example, the draft DSM-5 description of personality functioning is intended for use in the diagnosis of personality disorders. It has five levels, numbered from 0 to 4, with 0 representing “healthy functioning” and 5 representing “extreme impairment”.
The problem with it is that descriptions of dysfunctional states appear at level 0 as “healthy functioning”, while descriptions of normal functioning appear at other levels as “impairment”.
For example, we find this description of “healthy functioning”:
Ongoing awareness of a unique self; maintains role-appropriate boundaries.
So if you ever “lose yourself” while dancing or playing football, or if you’ve ever broken down in tears, you’ve failed and you’re on a spectrum of personality disorder, according to this daft draft.
Another description of “healthy functioning” is:
Strives for cooperation and mutual benefit and flexibly responds to a range of others’ ideas, emotions and behaviors.
So if you’re a charismatic leader, or a leading academic and original thinker, you’ve failed too and you’re also on this crazy spectrum of personality disorder.
Among the descriptions of “impairment” we find:
Inconsistent i[n] awareness of effect of own behavior on others.
Thus, if you sometimes know what effect you are having on other people, but you sometimes don’t realize, you’re supposed to think you have a level 1 disorder.
And again, this time at level 2:
Excessive dependence on others for identity definition, with compromised boundary delineation.
Can any normal person define their identity except by reference to others? And does any normal person not feel some shared experience and sympathy with other people?
At level 4, the most “extreme impairment”:
Social interactions can be confusing and disorienting.
And at level 3, perhaps most significantly:
Difficulty establishing and/or achieving personal goals.
These two descriptions are aimed at pathologizing people who set themselves challenges and who sometimes, or perhaps often, fail at them. They idealize people whose relationships and personal goals are safe and bland.
Although I have picked out the worst examples, there is a pervasive sense that people who challenge themselves in life, whose relationships and other ventures only sometimes work out well, are being classified as mentally ill. This is exactly the fallacy that the graph in the stress management book was designed to refute.
Optimum coping occurs when people constantly challenge themselves and sometimes fail, with the right level of challenge and failure being different for each individual. The DSM-5 draft describes a strange fantasy world in which everything can be cozy and nice and challenge-free.
In all twelve descriptions of DSM-5’s level 0, “healthy functioning”, there is no mention of challenge, risk, adversity, creativity, experiment, or resilience in the face of failure in any of them. DSM-5’s idealized personality is completely rusted out, just spinning the wheels.
DSM-5’s descriptions of personality disorder specifically target traditional American heroes: the immigrant, the pioneer, the frontiersman, the entrepreneur, the go-getter, the risk taker. It’s like a manifesto for settling down and giving up.
Drawing on the writings of Tunisian historian ibn Khaldun from six centuries ago, he outlines an alternative narrative of the Soviet Union’s collapse and the difficulties America now faces.
Ibn Khaldun’s theory was that every urban civilisation becomes vulnerable when it grows decadent from within. People live in towns and get used to luxuries. The rich grow indolent, the poor resentful. There is a loss of asabiyah, a keyword for Khaldun. Nowadays we would probably translate it as “social cohesion”. People no longer think in terms of the common good. They are no longer willing to make sacrifices for one another. Essentially they lose the will to defend themselves. They then become easy prey for the desert dwellers, the people used to fighting to stay alive.
Sacks advocates people taking things into their own hands and creating a renewal of values, noting that this is what happened nearly two centuries ago:
There is, to my mind, only one sane alternative. That is to do what England and America did in the 1820s. Those two societies, deeply secularised after the rationalist 18th century, scarred and fractured by the problems of industrialisation, calmly set about remoralising themselves, thereby renewing themselves.
The three decades, 1820-1850, saw an unprecedented proliferation of groups dedicated to social, political and educational reform-building schools, YMCAs, orphanages, starting temperance groups, charities, friendly societies, campaigning for the abolition of slavery, corporal punishment and inhumane working conditions, and working for the extension of voting rights…
People did not leave it to government or the market. They did it themselves in communities, congregations, groups of every shape and size.
Ibn Khaldun, in Muqaddimah, as translated by Yale Professor of Semitic Languages Franz Rosenthal, contrasted “sedentary” people with the desert-dwellers:
The sedentary person cannot take care of his needs personally. He may be too weak, because of the tranquility he enjoys. Or he may be too proud, because he was brought up in prosperity and luxury. Both things are blameworthy. He also is not able to repel harmful things, because he has no courage as the result of (his life in) luxury and his upbringing under the (tyrannical) impact of education and instruction. He thus becomes dependent upon a protective force to defend him.
These concepts — being sedentary, spinning the wheels, DSM-5’s level 0 — they all seem to describe a kind of rust that corrodes people’s ability to function and makes them dependent.