*New York Times* 29 June 2008 includes an article: “Stress Test” by
Peggy Ornstein.

Here are a few excerpts:

[begin excerpts]

For weeks before a store down the street from where I live in Berkeley
opened, it was unclear what it would sell — materially, anyway. Rather
than having a sign describing the merchandise, the windows were papered
over with foot-high aphorisms in punchy red and white type. “Friends are
more important than money.” “Jealousy works the opposite way you want
it to.” True enough, I suppose. But the one that caught my attention
was this: “Stress is related to 99 percent of all illness.”


Somewhere along the line, maybe when yoga studios began to outnumber
Starbucks outlets, the notion, at once modern and primitive, of the
mind’s irrefutable power over the flesh became the conventional wisdom.

It’s not that I think the mind-body connection is a total sham. But
even where it would seem most established, say in the relationship
between stress and heart disease, the mechanism is unclear. Is stress
an independent risk factor or does it merely influence others, raising
blood pressure or encouraging over-eating? Either way, popular mythology
both simplifies and generalizes the potential harm, applying it to
everything that ails us. After all, it feels true: I’m more at peace
with my frenetic life after a few rounds of sun salutations. Yet, what
does that prove?

Admittedly, I’m a tad touchy about this. Eleven years (and, as of this
writing, 6 months, 2 days, 19 hours and 30 minutes) ago I found out I
had breast cancer.


The idea that easing up on the pressure kick-starts women’s fertility
intuitively seems sound. Everyone knows someone (or someone who knows
someone) who gave birth after adopting. From the 1930s through 1950s,
according to “The Empty Cradle,” a history of infertility, medical
literature actually promoted adoption as a “cure,” claiming it resulted
in pregnancy “more often than not.” Freudians, too, counseled that
infertility was psychological, the result of maternal ambivalence;
resolve those feeling through adoption, and fecundity would follow.

Except — leaving aside the insinuations that adoption is a means to an
end rather than its own joyous experience, and that women who become
easily pregnant are never ambivalent — it’s not true. As early as 1949,
a study of adoptive parents co-written by the infertility pioneer John
Rock showed they conceived at the same rate as nonadopting infertile
couples: around 10 percent. (Subsequent research has put the likelihood
as low as 3 percent.) What’s more, according to a 2005 study of women
undergoing in vitro fertilization, published in the journal Human
Reproduction, stress had no impact on pregnancy rates. The fretful
conceived as readily as the chill.

I suspect women today may be particularly vulnerable to placing the
locus of illness in their heads rather than their bodies. In part
that’s because the causes of the ailments we’re prone to — reproductive
cancers, arthritis, fibromyalgia — are often mysterious in origin. But
it may also be an artifact of our rapid and successful social progress.


No surprise then, that in a 2001 Canadian study of 200 ovarian-cancer
survivors, almost two-thirds believed that stress caused their disease
and more than 80 percent attributed their survival to a positive attitude.

A related study of women who had breast cancer produced similar results
— fewer than 5 percent chalked up their survival to any medical
treatment. Or (as I do) to just plain good luck. Meanwhile, a Danish
study of 6,689 women, published in 2005, found those who were highly
stressed were 40 percent less likely than others to get breast cancer.

Susan Sontag noted that a culture’s maladies are apparent in the
emotional causes it attributes to illness. In the Victorian period,
cancer was “caused” by excessive family obligations or hyper-
emotionalism. In the 1970s it was “caused” by isolation and suppressed
anger. So the assertion that stress underlies 99 percent of illness may
indicate more about the healthy than the sick. Stress is our burden,
our bogyman, and reducing it is the latest all-purpose talisman against
adversity’s randomness. And maybe it helps. Maybe meditating and
letting go of my anger at people who drive for miles with their left-
turn signal flashing would improve the quality of my life, if not its
length. Or maybe it would be more the equivalent of forcing a New
Yorker to live in rural Maine.

[end excerpts]

The complete article is online at: