Are You Suffering from Toxic Stress?

Dr Vernon Coleman

My first book on stress was published back in 1978. It was called Stress Control and at the time the word ‘stress’ was very new. In fact `Stress Control’ was, I think, the first book on stress for the general public.

In the book I explained how stress – by which I meant pressure, worry and anxiety – could have an adverse effect on our mental and physical health.

The medical profession did not greet the book with any great enthusiasm. One professor of medicine publicly attacked me for suggesting that stress might be a contributory factor in the development of high blood pressure. He was so outraged by the very thought that he publicly clamoured for me to be struck off the medical register. Other eminent doctors dismissed the theory that stress could be responsible for the epidemic of mental illness as ‘nonsense’. I was attacked by doctors for suggesting that the widespread habit of overprescribing benzodiazepine tranquillisers such as Valium would lead to the biggest addiction problem the world had ever seen.

But patients loved the book. Thousands of people bought it and, according to their letters, found it helpful. Eventually, doctors even started recommending the book to their patients – instead of handing them prescriptions for tranquillisers.

Throughout the eighties I wrote extensively about a wide range of medical subjects. But stress remained a popular subject with other authors. Hundreds of books were published and thousands of newspaper and magazine articles about stress appeared. Gradually, stress stopped being such a ‘dangerous’ topic.

You might have thought that all these books and articles would have helped patients to control their stress effectively and permanently.

But despite all the attention the problem hasn’t gone away.

Instead, it has got worse.

By the end of the 1980s the incidence of stress related disease had reached truly epidemic proportions and just about every doctor in the country was prepared to recognise the part stress plays in the development of disease.

Why, when so many people are aware of the damage that can be done by stress, has stress continued to do increasing amounts of damage? Many years ago I argued that nine out of ten illnesses were caused by, or made worse by, stress. If anything, the proportion is now even higher.

There are two answers.

First, much of the stress to which we are exposed is outside our control. We have become increasingly aware of the ways in which our own behaviour can increase our exposure to stress and we have been taught many ways to reduce our vulnerability and to stress-proof our bodies. But this information is of limited value when it comes to dealing with general, social stresses – many of which are difficult to identify and impossible to avoid. I coined the phrase ‘toxic stress’ to describe these insidious and destructive social stresses. The term has, I’m pleased to say, become popular among doctors.

Second, we have failed in our attempts to control the damage done by stress because we have put all our effort into trying to find medical solutions. Hypnotherapists recommend hypnotherapy. Acupuncturists offer acupuncture as a solution. Herbalists recommend herbs and old fashioned, orthodox physicians prefer to prescribe drugs. All these remedies can be of value. But they work only by suppressing the symptoms of illness produced by stress. None of these techniques help to combat toxic stress.

Toxic stress is a result of social changes. And the only way to stay healthy and avoid the damage that can be done by toxic stress is to learn how to survive in the world we have created for ourselves.

Having studied the subject of stress for nearly half a century I am convinced that many of the commonest symptoms and disorders seen today are caused not by individual stresses or pressures but by the high level of toxic stress that affects us all. I believe that toxic stress is responsible for producing a condition which is best described as The Twenty First Century Blues. My researches convince me that over one half of the population in developed countries are already suffering from The Twenty First Century Blues – a serious condition which goes unrecognised by doctors and other healers. Furthermore, I believe that the treatments usually prescribed for sufferers from The Twenty First Century Blues are frequently likely to cause more problems than they solve.

In my book `Toxic Stress’ I have, for the first time, explained the causes of toxic stress – and the solutions for what I call The Twenty First Century Blues.

Vernon Coleman’s book ‘Toxic Stress’ is available as a paperback and an eBook.

Copyright Vernon Coleman October 2023