All too much

The Truth About Stress

Angela Patmore <em>Atlantic Books, 440pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 1843542358

Angela Patmore's thesis, in a nutshell, is that stress doesn't exist. The term is subject to so many definitions, many of them inconsistent, that it simply doesn't mean anything. Its usage medicalises conditions that aren't damaging - which, indeed, barely warrant the term "condition". The result is that we are unable to cope with our problems ourselves, and are left shoring up a drugs industry that has anything but our best interests at heart. Over the course of her career, Patmore has made many enemies: she has been portrayed as the distillation of Thatcherism, been accused in all kinds of roundabout ways of being a heartless bitch. She seems to delight in quoting these attacks. The more she writes, the more I like her.

Yet she launches this book in the most irritating way possible. She claims to be bringing the harsh light of science to bear on a field that, until now, has been un-troubled by logic. But her opening salvo is: "I used to get panic attacks, and I'm fine! I had a bit of courage, and they went away! Suck it up, you losers!" (These aren't actually her words - I'm paraphrasing, but only for brevity, not because I don't trust her to convey on her own how annoying she can be.) This, of course, is ad hominem . . . I feel as if I ought to say "tosh" here, but the proper word would be "bollocks". Nothing could be less scientific than this "If I can triumph over this complaint, so can you" line of reasoning.

Patmore goes on to reveal that she could have taken drugs to ward off her tremors, but that this was not an option because psychoactive prescription drugs had destroyed the life and happiness of her father - indeed, of her entire family. She says her father was a wonderful, generous, stable, open-hearted man, before some dumb GP gave him phenobarb, which made him crazy, followed by methadone, which made him crazier still. Now, GPs do not simply accost hard-working people with sedatives; there must have been something wrong with the guy to start with, something unrelated to the malign interference of professional stress charlatans. Only don't mention this to Patmore because, judging from her tone, she's liable to go off pop. This wouldn't be stress, though. Stress doesn't mean anything. It would be, I don't know, high colour.

Worse than any of this, however, is Patmore's mention of a fire in which various members of her family, including young children, were killed. The one surviving man, her cousin, "refused all stress counselling. He is brave, sane, as kind as he always was, and working." Now it's time - way past time - to make up your mind. Either you are writing a memoir of a tragedy, in which your conclusions can be set, sympathetically, against the magnitude of your loss, or you are writing a rigorous, scientific refutation of the "stress industry". You cannot do both, leastways not at the same time. And one particularly stoic individual, no matter how great his personal strength, goes no way towards undermining the evidence of everyone who copes less well than him.

This gung-ho opening is a shame, since Patmore embodies many of the qualities you'd want from a popular scientist. She's never dry - she's way too cross. Her writing is full of fire and her examples of stress accoutrements are wonderfully wry. (She describes a "stress toolkit" - "from dolphin clicks to aroma pillows, and 'squeezy water knobbled keyrings' to exercises, 'self-entrainment devices' . . . " You can almost see the derision.) And don't get her started on counselling. She is trenchant, ballsy, occasionally pedantic, but you get the sense that's only because she has found so much wrong with a proposition that she literally doesn't know when to stop.

Ultimately, I think she loses sight of her target. Stress doesn't exist, it has no definition. Dolphin-related devices rarely work. Behind every health scam is a person making money. Fine, but the fact is, people in certain situations do, with blazing frequency, have mental and physical responses that they cannot master. It would be interesting to see what Patmore could devise for them, with her formidable vim, if only she would stop writing them off as weaklings.