Relax Those Tensions
( Originally Published 1956 )
"You see before you," Bruce Wilson told me wearily, "a frustrated exurbanite. One of the new species of Americans. When my wife and I bought a home in the country, thirty-five miles away from the confusion of Wall Street, I thought I could relax. The comfortable life of a country squire—that was my idea. So what happens?"
"All right, Bruce," I said, "suppose you tell me."
"I," he said, "am continually traveling. Always on the go. To and from work, back and forth between home and the country club which Janet insisted on joining, attending cock-tail parties, dinners, dances; driving to bedlam and back in our new foreign sports car—anything to impress the natives. And for what? I don't care about any of them!"
"What do you care about, Bruce?" I asked.
"The same as any other man," he answered. "My wife and children—although you may doubt it from some of the things I'm going to tell you! I care about my job, my home, my family, and our future together. I want time to plan for that future, and to enjoy the present. I can't spread myself thin over a whole community, listening to gossip, taking sides in irrational prejudices. My wife has time for these things. She likes them. I don't. So why should I have to participate?"
"It's much easier," I said, "not to become involved in the first place than it is to extricate yourself."
"I know that now," he said. "I'm on a merry-go-round, and I don't know how to get off. Nobody's going to stop the music for me until I drop—which may be soon. And Janet has the clinching argument on her side."
"What's that?" I asked, as if I didn't know.
"The battle cry of angry womanhood, `You don't love me any more!' Just what does she expect me to do to prove it to her? She has everything she's asked for, she goes everywhere she wants to go, and on that rare occasion, an evening at home, do I get to rest?"
"If I'm supposed to hazard a guess," I said, "it's no."
"That's the answer," he said. "I'm at home on a special assignment—to discipline the children. Individually, I love each of my four children, but collectively, they're swarming, rebellious brats who drive me crazy. If that's an unfatherly attitude I'm sorry, but I can't help it!"
"Almost any father," I said, "when he's tired and harassed, feels the same way. Don't let it worry you."
"Janet," said Bruce, "is with the children most of the time. So why should I have to be the one to cram etiquette, obedience, and ethics down their unwilling little throats? Those things can't be taught in an hour's time. It's a day-by-day job."
"You mean it's a wife's job," I said. "Is that it?"
"Well, isn't it?" he shouted angrily.
"Look, Bruce," I said, "I think it is. I'm on your side. But until we can convince the wives, what good is it?"
"My wife," he said, "feels that she's unappreciated—and underloved. Who does she think I am—Superman? I'm exhausted, mentally and physically. My head aches all the time, and I'm afraid I'm headed straight for a crack-up."
Bruce's hands were so tightly clenched that the knuckles showed white, and a muscle in his jaw was twitching. Here was a man perpetually tense, his muscles tied up in knots, his mind in a turmoil. He would have to unwind before he could face his problems calmly and work out solutions for them.
"Stillness," I said, "is what you need."
"Stillness!" he said, bitterly. "Tell my wife that!"
"I'll be glad to," I said. "I'd like to tell all the wives just this: A man's capacity to endure the noise and the fury of the world around him depends upon his ability—and opportunity!—to enjoy stillness."
"My wife wouldn't believe you," said Bruce.
"Peace and quiet," I said, "are more important than most people realize. They enable you to meet the strains of noise and drive. It's in the stillness—the time of repose—that we find wisdom and renewed strength for pushing on."
"I hoped to find that when we moved to the country," said Bruce. "But the pressure's worse than ever. Rush mornings to catch my train or, if I drive, fight traffic all the way. Hurry through interviews, letters, appointments, straining every nerve to make each minute count. The day's grind over, dash for home. A hurried dinner, a quick change of clothes, be-cause Janet's planned the usual evening's entertainment with friends or at the club. Drink too much, get home barely in time to catch the late, late show on TV, and never get enough sleep. Stillness? I don't even know the meaning of the word any more. I don't think I can go on facing the same cycle over and over again."
"It's easy enough to see why," I said. "You're putting your body through a damaging pattern of abuse. You can't try to get by on too little sleep and deny fatigue indefinitely. It isn't pampering yourself to let down before you break down. It's just showing good sense."
Eddie Cantor recalled recently how happy he had been during his early days in vaudeville. "No great rush—" he said, "and no heart attacks."
Rushing gets to be a habit. Tension becomes a way of life. Men are harassed, and nervous misery produced, by the conviction that a certain amount of work must be gotten out every hour on the hour. If your secretary could visualize, in one pile, all the letters that she'll have to write in the next ten years, she would quit.
The tense boss paces back and forth in his office, dictating at breakneck speed. He may have the fastest secretary in his company—a keyed-up, harried girl who strains every nerve to finish her job quickly—then goes home with a migraine head-ache.
The writer gets deadline jitters. He bites his nails, picks at the skin of his fingers, and says, "I'll never get this finished on time. I'm so nervous right now I could jump out of my skin!"
Tenseness is contagious. It isn't easy to stay calm in a tension-charged atmosphere. You can get a headache from men-tally knitting your brows, but it takes much more effort than that to relax.
Tight muscles are always painful. The tense person is constantly on edge, strained, ready to go into action. Muscle tightness, accompanied by excessive alertness or apprehension, produces a headache. This type of headache is of much lower intensity than a migraine, but because tenseness is a habit, such a headache can be painfully persistent.
Generally in the tense headache, a feeling of stiffness and soreness radiates up over the back of the head and neck, often with the sensation that a tight band is encircling the head.
If the tense headache becomes habitual, tight cords or hard lumps, sensitive to the touch, may be felt in the substance of the muscles.
Two factors are involved in this type of pain, which comes from a stimulation of the pain nerve endings in the muscles: the presence of sustained muscular contraction and a reduction in the blood supply to the involved muscles. This reduction may be due to either an accompanying constriction of the arteries or a pinching off of the arteries by the tight muscles themselves, with a resultant interference in the blood flow.
In experimental studies on sufferers of this type of head-ache, with the use of a sensitive electronic recorder, it has been found that muscle contractions, reflected on the recorder in electrical activity, are greatly increased during periods of emotional tension. When these tension periods are prolonged, pain appears.
If your tension results in this type of high-intensity head-ache you will feel most comfortable in an upright, sitting position, with the head inclined forward and supported by the hands. The headache may diminish in intensity with movement of the body and neck. Household remedies such as aspirin or proprietary powders offer very little relief.
Heat lamps produce comfortable warmth in the tension headache, and may also induce a relaxation of the affected muscles and thus reduce the intensity of the pain. Hot packs or immersion in a warm bath help induce local and general relaxation, thus reducing the intensity of the muscle contraction.
Ninety per cent of the headaches caused by muscle tightness arise mainly as part of the patient's attempt to adjust to his daily problems and challenges. The treatment most frequently indicated for the tension headache is attention to the sufferer as an individual functioning in his particular social setting with his own special job to be done.
Tension is a warning sign of a health crack-up. Americans work too hard and expect too much of themselves and others.
Driven as we are by violent emotions—love, hate, fear, and ambition—we try to adjust ourselves to increasing pressures. We ignore tenseness and chronic tiredness until, slowly, accumulated weaknesses creep up on us, and we can no longer carry on.
Disregard your mounting tenseness or irritability until you become mentally and physically worn out and you invite a nervous breakdown. Nine million Americans a year do exactly that. Will you be one of them?
It is the opinion of several leading psychiatrists that a man does not break down from overwork, but from his attitude toward his work. The crack-up of the executive, they believe, is precipitated by a deterioration in the executive's social life, his outside interests, or his marriage.
The man who turns to his work as to a refuge, for its therapeutic value, encounters in his work a special stress or a series of stresses that at some point intensify unbearably the conflicts of his personality. Then he goes to pieces.
Hal Boyle, of the Associated Press, has a suggestion which contains more truth than nonsense. He says that bosses could avoid their coronaries by jumping up and down and shouting "Idiots!" at their employees. And how could the employees avoid their ulcers? By getting the privilege of an early-morning shouting hour during which they could go in and yell at the boss, telling him just what they thought of him. Mr. Boyle believes that both procedures would benefit the blood pressure.
The cocktail method of relaxation is a damaging one. If you limit your drinking to a glass of light wine or beer, this may relax you and prepare your stomach for nourishment. But the cocktail bender is another thing!
Dr. William F. Boos, a toxicologist, tells us: "Alcohol is a poison classed among the narcotic drugs along with chloral, ethyl chloride, chloroform, ether, toluol and benzol."
Alcohol is a poison that acts upon the brain as an anesthetic. Only a relatively small amount is found in a glass of wine or beer. With a stronger drink, however, the alcohol triggers the whole complicated defense and repair system of the body. If you subject your body to repeated reactions to emergency situations with the daily drinking of strong cocktails, your system will eventually be weakened. No matter how tense you feel at the end of the day, don't depend on alcohol for your relaxation.
More than sixty million Americans—some 64 per cent of the adult population—now drink. The thirty-to-forty-yearolds are the heaviest drinkers. Statistically, 1 out of every 15 of these social drinkers will end up an alcoholic. The progressive damage the others do to themselves—their brains, glands, metabolic processes—depends on the amount of alcohol they consume. Habitual drinking will cause lasting impairment to the brain, the nervous system, and the liver. Every time you drink too much a certain amount of brain damage results.
You can measure the amount of damage your drinking does to you by your mental state. In the first stage of drunkenness, in which there is an 0.05 per cent alcoholic content in the blood, the higher brain centers are affected. Thus, in the period between a second drink and a ninth your reactions would progress from gradual loss of inhibition, through loss of co-ordination, to loss of sensory perception, and into black-out and possible death. The alcoholic whittles away his brain reserve until he reaches the stage in which any alcohol in his system will immediately paralyze his will power and judgment.
Alcohol is poisonous to the nerve cells unless a sufficient amount of B vitamins or some other dietary antidote is also present in the system. This is why you have a hangover from overindulgence. A slight hangover is the result of a disturbance of the central nervous system, which has been poisoned by alcohol. The nervous system has not been able to recuperate because the body has had to rob the nerve cells of their essential B vitamins in order to digest the alcohol.
Many victims of tension turn for escape to sedatives or more sinister drugs. The New York Academy of Medicine reports that the tense consume some 336 tons of barbiturates yearly.
How much can a man take of this personal devil which Dr. William B. Terhune, of New York, describes as "the income tax of civilization"? The breaking point of a man under tension varies.
This breaking point is called by psychiatrists the limit of tolerance or endurance. Each of us has his own psychological breaking point, just as each has his particular threshold of physical pain. There is a certain line deep within our physical and psychological selves that can't be crossed. To do so may precipitate an unheaval comparable to that of an unleashed bedspring.
Doctors are amazed at the number of us who fail to crack up under the smashing pressures and the mechanical tyrannies of our daily lives. The telephone jangles its tyranny of interruption, the clock has the tyranny of appointment, and the calendar's tyranny is that of apprehension. It constantly reminds you of your income tax, of your monthly bills, of your fears of growing old. Your reactions to these triggers of tension depend upon the kind of person you are—the sum total of your physical and mental make-up.
Dr. Iago Galdston, psychiatrist for the New York Academy of Medicine, says: "The individual's ability to absorb tension depends upon his inborn deficiencies and his acquired in-effective ways of meeting stresses and strains." Each individual may be thought of as being like a steel wire with a certain breaking strength. If the load is not too heavy he can carry it without damage. But if the tension strain is too great, too concentrated, and too prolonged, even the man with the strongest personality, and the healthiest body, will crack.
Dr. William C. Menninger, the well-known psychiatrist, found, in studies of soldiers who suffered breakdowns in World War II, that intensive combat increased the rate of breakdown by about 300 per cent. Of the men in combat divisions in the European theater, from June through November, 1944, 260 out of 1,000 broke down. Other soldiers cracked during their basic training, and still others broke down when they were shipped overseas. Nearly 8,500,000 young men and women were found unfit for military service.
Victims of tension breed ulcers or fluttering hearts. Some create alarm reactions in their vital glands. "If these alarm reactions remain chronic," warns Dr. Hans Selye, of Montreal, "the glands become exhausted and resistance to disease is thereby lowered. Stress may produce almost any diseases by its effect on the body's hormonal output . . . the internal chemical balance is controlled mainly by the pituitary and adrenal glands."
Many successful businessmen recognize the devastating effects of tension. Tex Colbert, president of Chrysler Motors, is an exurbanite who controls tension instead of letting it control him. If no night meeting is scheduled, Mr. Colbert leaves work every evening at 5:30. He goes home to a quiet dinner, and gets his daily exercise by walking his dog. On weekends Mr. Colbert relaxes by golfing with his wife, and twice a year he vacations back at his boyhood home in Texas.
"Instead of worrying all through the night about my problems in this highly competitive field of auto manufacture," Mr. Colbert says, "before I go to sleep, I ask myself if there's anything more I can do now. If there isn't, I sleep soundly."
Ralph G. Klieforth, president of the Universal Motor Company, of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, is one of America's most con-tented sportsmen. His business is a sport—boating. On lake Winnebago he tries out all the new engine designs—gears, propellers, drive shafts—and various fuel combinations, the products of his firm. For pleasure Mr. Klieforth goes big-game hunting in the Yukon. "I get my fun and satisfaction both ways," he says. "No drudgery or tensions in my life!"
Even so busy and harassed a man as Secretary of State John Foster Dulles has found a way to combat fatigue. While others tire themselves out with useless fretting, Secretary Dulles rests during his precious in-between minutes. He credits the cat naps he takes with helping him maintain his usual freshness at high-level diplomatic meetings.
"How's your sense of humor?" I asked Bruce.
"I've almost forgotten," Bruce said, "that I ever had one. Life is so deadly serious now. What time is there for laughter?"
"You'd better take time for laughter," I told him. "Haven't you heard the maxim, A merry heart doeth good like a medicine? Laughter can untangle your emotions, unwind your tensions. The more tense you are, the more you need to laugh. We can all take a tip from the businessman who said his motto was, 'A laugh a day drives tension away.' "
"If a laugh comes my way I'll certainly grab it," said Bruce, "but so few of them do any more. Any other suggestions?"
"I've hardly even started," I said. "First, get up early enough to take a walk every morning, instead of dashing to the train at the last minute, worrying about whether or not you'll make it. Take time to eat a leisurely, protein-rich breakfast. Evaluate your job, so plan it as to save time through greater efficiency."
Former President Truman clears his mind of any early-morning cloudiness with a brisk walk. He says this enables him to start work fresh and mentally alert. Bernard Baruch, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, and other busy people manage to stretch their working time, instead of letting it tick away for them. They are always on the lookout for time-saving opportunities. They have learned how to detour details, how to keep their desks clear so that they can begin the day doing jobs that are important, and how to plan ahead. Henry Ford II plans his work for as much as a month ahead.
"There is nothing," I went on, "that can relieve you from a tortured, anxiety-ridden state of mind—except yourself. You must bring your general health up to par. Then you must learn how to relax. No matter what the manufacturers of the new chemicals say, there are really no peace of mind pills. There are drugs to desensitize you, but in the final analysis, it's up to you alone. Your food intake definitely affects your work, especially your protein intake."
Biochemists Krout and Lehman found by experiment that the protein dietary requirements for both light and heavy work are about the same. In the experiment, when the protein intake of the participants was reduced below a certain amount, there was a definite reaction in the form of depression, a falling off of work capacity, and a lack of co-operation. When the subjects got more protein, the symptoms disappeared. Krout and Lehman concluded that, to accomplish a day's work, men and women need at least 70 grams of the kind of protein found in meat, cheese, eggs, and similar foods, no matter how many calories they consume.
We are all familiar with the coffee addict—the worker who must have his morning shot of caffeine or he becomes morose, irritable, and speaks in grunts. If this man would eat a decent breakfast with the proteins of eggs and meat, he would be able to do a full day's work.
Then, there is the man whose rhythm is as broken as the sudden spurts of energy he gets from the carbohydrates he snacks on all day long. At 10 A.M. he raises his blood sugar through the morning coffee break; at noon, with his sandwich luncheon; and again at 4 P.M., with a Coke or a dessert. By the time he gets home he is so fagged that he can barely make it to the door. He invites tension with his below-par physical condition.
Far from needing less of the important nutrients, the tense person needs more. He needs protein for specific dynamic action. He needs more vitamins to speed up the metabolic processes to furnish the extra energy he needs and to repair the tissues he destroys. He requires 4 to 8 times as much diffusible thiamine as the rested person. The victim of tension, whose condition is precipitated by a lack of minerals in the body organs, invites a breakdown unless he assures himself of an adequate supply of these important body-health regulators.
A mineral balance is necessary to the maintenance of health: Phosphorus is a producer of useful energy in the body. Calcium is the prime instigator of vital activity. Lacking enough of these and the other minerals, your body is unable to make full use of vitamins.
Minerals, proteins, and vitamins work together to resist the onset of disease. Keep your nerves and your body in good condition by providing them with plenty of these vital materials. They are essential to your health, to your very life. If you don't obtain enough minerals and vitamins in the food you eat—and few of us do!—be sure to take them every day in concentrated form. And let's not forget lecithin!
I hope you won't ever need an antidote for a bad hangover, but if you should—try honey. Honey has a high vitamin con-tent, and is a magnet for water, drawing fluid to itself and lessening the amount of fluid in the brain. It's an invaluable aid in producing relief when a migraine headache appears. Because of its quick pickup action honey soothes tired nerves and combats the fatigue caused by tensions. Honey in milk, honey in lemon juice—or just plain honey!—these are unexcelled tension-stoppers in the form of natural food.
"You make it all sound so easy," said Bruce.
"The physical factors involved," I said, "aren't difficult: Fortify your body with nourishing food, plus vitamins and minerals, and see that you get enough rest. Next, fortify your mind with tension-preventives."
"That," said Bruce, "will take a good deal more effort."
"If something worries you," I said, "confide that worry to some level-headed friend. Don't keep it to yourself. Look at it in a clear light, face it—and watch it fade. Anger is another tension-contributor. Instead of quareling with someone, re-member that the Greatest Teacher of all said, `Agree with thine adversary quickly.' Considering the other person's view-point is a fine tension-reliever."
"I'll remember that," said Bruce. "What else?"
"Stop driving yourself," I said. "Your work load won't seem unbearable if you'll put your major effort into the things that you do well, and just do everything else to the best of your ability. Accomplish the urgent tasks first, and save the rest for tomorrow. Don't try to break records in everything you do. A perfectionist finds it difficult to accomplish his work quota, and his intolerance of the performance of others constantly creates tense situations."
Bruce smiled a little. "It sounds," he said, "as though you're talking about me."
"You," I told him, "and how many countless others! Don't crowd your schedule so full that you have no time for recreation. When everything goes wrong, escape for a little while. You'll be able to come back and handle the difficulty with composure. Shed your fears, your worries, and your emotional immaturity. In dealing with your fellow man, substitute co-operation for destructive competition. Transmute your tensions and frustrations into peace of mind."
Consider what tension is: simply the contraction of a muscle, motivated by a nerve. Overactive nerves produce too many muscle contractions. A nervous, high-strung person needlessly works his nerves and muscles. Practice the art of living by learning the key to any art—that of economy. Learn to manage your body and your mind.
When you learn to identify the various muscular tensions you can relax them simply by letting them go. Chest tension is present when you take a deep breath. Abdominal tension can be found by drawing in your stomach. To locate foot tension, bend each foot toward you and then away from you. See how much easier it is to let these muscles relax than it is to contract them!
"You can detect tensions in various parts of your body," I continued; "then you can relax them. The deeper your body gets into the state of repose, the quieter your mind becomes. Knowledge gives you the tools to work with, Bruce. How are you going to use them?"
"I'll tell you how. I'm not going to allow either my family or my job to give me nervous tension. Things are going to be different from now on." He grinned. "I'm going to have a little peace and quiet in my own home if I have to tear the place apart to get it!"
Tension is not new to this world. The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius recognized tension. He said, "If you are pained by any external thing, it is not this that disturbs you, but your own judgment about it."
Tension today is a complex and dangerous threat to our national health. Overcome your tensions, or they will over-come you. An adversary not to be underestimated, tension is a killer of both mind and body!