When the world seems to be getting you down;Comment;Opinion;FE Focus

26th March 1999 at 00:00
"TRY THIS relaxation tape, it's fantastic." My colleague is a mine of information on stress-busters though her missionary work is often unappreciated. "I don't get stressed," Ella muttered through clenched teeth, though what looked like a red map of Africa flaring on her neck seemed to contradict her.

"You pay pound;20 a week for a reflexology session?" somebody else squeaked, breaking open a cheap packet of paracetemol.

Stress is in the air here in the fractured landscape of further education. It takes its toll on students, too. They may not have the awful build-up to exams (yet) but the pressures of continuous assessment and deadlines on top of their financial problems often produce unusual coping strategies.

Iain was left in splendid isolation slaving over a hot Macintosh during lunchtime to remediate a final assessment. When I went in he was perched on the window sill, playing a saxophone and producing mellow, liquid music. No, the assessment wasn't finished, but at least he had chilled out and that was the main thing.

Pam had missed several classes because of a chronic illness and because she had recently had to resort to a walking stick, which embarrassed her. "It's a horrible, NHS aluminium thing," she said on the phone.

She made a spectacular entrance on her return to class this week with a very tight, very short black dress, what she later described as "my push and pull bra", black boots, lots of glossy make-up and a great deal of style. She paused as she made her way across the floor to allow the class plenty of time to gawp: "Nobody's looking at the stick, right?" Bobby is struggling with his Communication 4 module and he says he's becoming stressed. His 10-minute formal presentation, however, was a gem. The class gave him a round of applause and he basked in the limelight. I think perhaps we overdid the positive strokes.

"Do you want me to do it again next week?" he asked, overcome with his success. The class were quite amenable, so the show's set to run again.

My Friday morning class have very firm ideas on stress. Alice had read aloud her story about her first job on the assembly line in Keiller's, that now defunct middle "J for Jam" in Dundee's industrial history. At her interview, neat in school uniform, she had presented her report card and her hands for inspection. The report card was dutifully scanned and the supervisor felt her hands. No stressful interview, no psychological profiling.

Just three words were said: "Cold. Good. Chocolates." Alice had taken the precaution of nipping into the ladies' to press her palms on the cold tiles before the interview, but nevertheless she was delighted to get one of the best jobs in the factory.

Her account of life on the conveyor belt jogged memories for the whole class. Dundee has always been a town of working women and the stories of the jute mills and Timex were women's stories of friendships and feuds, hard work and equally hard lives. The women did work that is now recognised as typically stressful. May's mother had worked all her life in the jute mills.

"Sure it was hard work, and she had worries. Big worries. Nobody complained 'bout being stressed, though," May said. "You just got on with it."

Talk to May's mum about stress and she'd probably make you a nice strong cuppa and tell you to pull yourself together. Stress wasn't fashionable then. Or to be more accurate, the discourse of stress wasn't available to May's mum as she tried to comb the jute dust out of her hair, or to Alice as she put walnuts on top of speeding ginger creams.

Now we have got the discourse, now we know more about causes and coping strategies, do we manage stress better, or are we, as some researchers suggest, simply prisoners of a discourse which places the individual firmly in the position of victim? Am I suffering from stress, or the consequences of entering the discourse?

The stressful question gnawed at me as I switched on the relaxation cassette that evening. Did it work? I have no idea. I played it twice and each time I fell asleep after the three-minute introduction. Either it works superbly well or I'm just plain tired.

Dr Carol Gow is a lecturer in mediacommunication at Dundee College.

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