Old-fashioned stress mistaken for a new-age syndrome

LUCY KELLAWAY – The Financial Times

I have just bought a new pair of boots. They come up to my knees and are black with chunky heels. They have got nice thick leather soles and were a great bargain. Today is my first day wearing them, and a couple of people in the office have said they look nice.
I would like to say two further interesting things about these boots. First, they turn out to be rather less comfortable than they seemed in the shop – the left foot is rubbing over the instep and the right foot is catching me just under the ankle. Second, I have just noticed there is a big white blob on one toe. Either I must have dropped some of my breakfast on to my foot this morning, or a bird shat on me on my way into work without me noticing.
I realise this column so far shows little sign of brain activity. There is a reason: I am suffering from the latest executive illness – Attention Deficit Trait – and writing soothing paragraphs about a non-challenging subject is a prescribed remedy.
The details of this new office epidemic are chronicled in the latest issue of the Harvard Business Review. ADT, it tells us, is a bit like Attention Deficit Disorder, but instead of being a genetic condition it is created by the way we work. We are so distracted and overwhelmed by our e-mails, our Blackberries, mobile phones and by all the conflicting demands of managerial life that our brains overload.
ADT turns brilliant people into frenzied underachievers who work flat out without ever getting much done. It is a “very real but unrecognised neurological phenomenon” says the HBR, and is 10 times as common as it was a decade ago.
The author of the article, Ned Hallowell, is a psychiatrist, and he explains what is going on inside the brains of us sufferers. Our frontal and pre-frontal lobes are the bits of our brain that help us behave like civilised, efficient office workers. When these get overloaded, the deeper parts of the brain that control emotion send out fear signals, paralysing our frontal lobes and making us unable to comport ourselves appropriately or effectively. The ADT victim starts to show signals of anger, irritation, anxiety.
Alas, this rings a very large, very noisy bell. Before Christmas I devoted an entire column to how irritating I was finding everything. Some readers said I was a spoilt little brat and should take a holiday in Iraq. Many others wrote in telling me to relax, and a couple suggested I “take a chill pill” – a phrase so irritating that just reading it may have done permanent damage to my frontal lobes.
I should now like to tell all these disgusted readers that they should give me a break. I have ADT, and therefore deserve their compassion.
According to Dr Hallowell, the best remedy is to create a “positive, fear-free emotional atmosphere”. Doing this turns out to be complicated, but I have tried to take in all his tips, and repeat most here, along with my comments.
1. Every four to six hours spend some time talking to people you like. This is great advice. I swear by it, though unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be helping my ADT.
2. Keep a section of your work space clear at all times. A messy desk is simply how I work. When I give it a partial tidy, I often feel worse.
3. Don’t e-mail until you’ve done other things first. I find e-mail helps me warm up in the morning, so I see nothing to be gained by this.
4. Get enough sleep. I quite agree. Only wish it was that easy.
5. Avoid sugar and alcohol. I don’t accept this at all. Nice treats to look forward to make life worth living.
6. Move around – walk briskly. This is a great tip. I do it anyway.
7. Do a rote task such as writing a note about your house or your shoes. See above.
8. Take a multi-vitamin pill. This tip is so feeble I hardly know how to respond. I have never understood why rational people with good diets think they need them – in fact I think less of all those millions who take them. (No messages on this point, please. My inbox isn’t big enough.) The idea that the Harvard Business Review seriously suggests that taking a multi-vitamin pill is going to help with ADT makes me suspect very strongly that ADT is an entirely bogus concept with bogus remedies.
If I reject the idea that I have ADT, there is another possibility. Last week I received a press release about another condition diagnosed by US doctors in Texas. It is called HWS – Hurried Woman Syndrome. This is also apparently an incredibly worrying illness, affecting 60m women in the US. The symptoms seem to be much the same as ADT, only with weight gain and sleeplessness. The remedies to this turn out to be writing lists, getting sleep, taking exercise.
I am most certainly a hurried woman, and usually proud to be one. But I no more have this syndrome than I have ADT. In truth, I don’t have any syndrome. Life is busy, and mostly I like it that way. I often get cross, and often find things annoying. There is another label for it, and it is stress. Sometimes stress is good, and sometimes it isn’t. Everyone’s way of coping is different. And I defy anyone to tell me that alcohol and a KitKat are a worse strategy for getting me from one end of the day to the other than tidying my desk and taking a multi-vitamin pill.
The one therapeutic thing to have come out of my research this week was writing the paragraph about my boots, which I much enjoyed. I apologise to readers if they enjoyed it rather less. In fairness to the HBR I should make clear that this was an exercise that was supposed to be completed in private rather than in the pages of a global newspaper.


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