Tension—What Can You Do About It?
HAVE you been to a drugstore recently? If so, you may recall seeing shelves filled with preparations to reduce the pain of headache, to calm jangled nerves or to combat inability to sleep. You see the same things repeatedly advertised in print and by television commercials.
It is evident that more and more people today are seeking relief from ailments. What causes so many aches and pains? Often a common element is involved: TENSION.
People of all ages and from all walks of life suffer from tension, or stress. Studies indicate that it afflicts so-called blue-collar workers more than it does executives. Youngsters, unmarried and divorced persons seem to experience more tension than older married people.
According to Dr. Eberhard H. Uhlenhuth, a psychiatrist at the University of Chicago, increasing evidence indicates that stress plays a major role in causing most of man’s illnesses, from the common cold to heart attacks. “While there are other factors involved in causing illness,” Dr. Uhlenhuth said in a health forum lecture, “it is quite clear that stress plays a triggering role.”
Consider what tension can do to the heart. When a person is under stress, his blood vessels contract; thus greater pressure is required to force the blood through them. Also, the body’s sympathetic nervous system increases the amount of the stress hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline. In his book The Western Way of Death (1974), Dr. Malcolm Carruthers explains:
“These stress hormones raise the level of free active fat in the blood to prepare the body for physical exertion which, in the modern urban environment, seldom comes. As a result, the now redundant free fatty acids are laid down in the walls of blood vessels as neutral fat and cholesterol. When the coronary arteries have been narrowed by a critical amount, a final stressful episode makes the blood supply to the heart insufficient for its needs.”
Prolonged stress can lead to stomach ulcers, diabetes and, in some cases, tumors. Pointing to this possibility are certain experiments with chickens performed by Dr. W. B. Gross, a veterinarian at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. According to The National Observer: “The experimental chickens developed a much higher incidence of a virus-caused cancer than did a control group. ‘Social stress acting through the pituitary and adrenal glands appears to be a factor in the development of tumors,’ Gross reported. ‘Control of the physiological manifestations of stress may help to control tumors.’”
Of course, in most cases tension does not result in tumors. But stress does play a leading role in serious illnesses. Is there a way for you to reduce the likelihood of suffering adverse effects of tension?
First of all, it is important to realize that not all stress is bad. In Today’s Health J. D. Ratcliff points out:
“Actually, stress is the salt of life. We are stressed by joy, by a game of tennis, by an exciting melodrama. We are in our least stressful state on awakening in the morning—and we know how we are then. There is apt to be mental confusion and poor muscular coordination. Stress wakes us up, makes us live. Difficulties arise when a particular stress, either mental or physical, is applied too long.”
The fact that some stress really benefits people led Dr. Hans Selye, a foremost authority on the biochemistry of stress, to coin the word “eustress,” meaning “good stress.” It is “distress,” or bad stress, in his opinion, that causes problems. In the book Stress Without Distress, Dr. Selye remarks: “Since [stress] is associated with all types of activity, we could avoid it only by never doing anything.”
If stress is overly prolonged, however, or if a person reacts poorly to a stressful situation, harm may result. How can you avoid that? Let us consider some basic situations that cause excess tension.
SOME CAUSES OF EXCESS TENSION
People vary greatly in their reactions to events in their lives. What brings distress to one person may be a refreshing experience for someone else.
Some things, though, nearly always breed unhealthy tension. Among the greatest of these is the loss of one’s spouse. Also ranked high are personal injury or illness, loss of a job and financial reverses. The overcrowded conditions of some areas and the continual subjection of persons to loud noises are, for many individuals, further sources of painful stress.
The amount of tension experienced by a person has much to do with his attitude toward life. Concerning the way of life of many who died of heart attacks, The Western Way of Death says: “This could be characterized as an irregular, self-destructive way of life, primarily dominated by emotions of aggression, anger and ambition.” Are you acquainted with persons of that type, or with ones who seem to ‘work around the clock’ to get ahead? Concerning such people, J. D. Ratcliff, quoted above, observes:
“We speak of alcohol and drugs as being addictive. So is work. Driving, ambitious people become slaves to work. The resultant stress can cause serious problems.”
Besides his mental attitude, a person’s daily routine may contribute to excessive stress. Last year, an article in the Los Angeles Times pointed to an interesting observation of Dr. Selye: “Some people are racehorses, so highly strung that it would kill them to be kept in a quiet stall most of the time . . Such people need more stimulation. He compared others to turtles, whose vital force and energy are best conserved in quiet and placidity.” One who is overpaced or underpaced at his job is likely to suffer ill effects from tension.
Does tension bother you? There are a number of things that people have found effective in coping with tension. Let us consider some of them briefly.
THE VALUE OF A BALANCED VIEWPOINT
If tension is a problem for you, could a more balanced viewpoint of life help? Consider the advice of Dr. Aaron T. Beck with regard to the “middle bracket” business-executive type:
“His trouble is an outgrowth of the overemphasis on achievement and the notion that a person’s self-worth is dependent on how much he achieves. At its ultimate, achieving becomes a life-or-death matter to him, and he is constantly generating anxiety, just as though the ax is ready to fall at any moment.
“If he can develop a more healthy attitude about achievement—learn from experience that it’s a nice thing to have, but an optional extra and not an essential for existence or self-worth—then he is less likely to feel the stress of striving for a goal.”
One of the wisest men of ancient times contributed a similar sentiment to the inspired Scriptures, when he wrote: “And I myself have seen all the hard work and all the proficiency in work, that it means the rivalry of one toward another; this also is vanity and a striving after the wind. Better is a handful of rest than a double handful of hard work and striving after the wind.”—Eccl. 4:4, 6.
The emotion of anger may be the worst for causing tension. Many individuals have fallen dead as a result of heart attacks brought on by fits of rage. Are you inclined to be quick-tempered? If so, it will help you to get a more balanced viewpoint, realizing that ‘blowing one’s top’ is not a sign of strength, but of weakness. The Bible’s proverb wisely states: “He that is slow to anger is better than a mighty man, and he that is controlling his spirit than the one capturing a city.” (Prov. 16:32) After treatment by a psychotherapist, a young man who had physically assaulted more than twenty people admitted: “Now I realize that a real man can handle his problems without a fight.”
Pointing to a sure principle for rooting out undue tension from our lives, Dr. Selye observed in an interview:
“The two great emotions that cause the absence or presence of stress are love and hate. The Bible makes this point over and over again. The message is that if we don’t somehow modify our built-in selfishness, we arouse fear and hostility in other people—not a very favorable environment in which to exist! Conversely, the more we modify that self-centeredness, the more we can persuade people to love us rather than hate us, the safer we are, and the less stress we have to endure.”
WILL A CHANGE OF PACE HELP?
What about your daily routine? If you are like many factory employees who work on assembly lines, it is probable that repeating the same tasks day after day gets you down at times. What can you do to ease tension in your life?
If your present employment does not serve a special purpose that would offset its undesirable aspects, could changing to a job that better suits your personality improve matters for you? If such a change will not create economic hardship, you may find that doing something you like will reduce stress in your life.
Often, though, a job change is out of the question, as in the case of housewives. If that is your circumstance, you may find it helpful to do the most unpleasant tasks first, leaving later hours for more enjoyable duties. Too, a change of pace from time to time is a must to prevent the buildup of tension. A short walk, a half-hour nap or simply looking out of the window for a few minutes can do wonders for a tense person. Beware, though, not to take so many breaks that you become frustrated due to lack of accomplishment. This would aggravate, rather than relieve, tension.
There may be an even better way to seek a healthy change of pace. Dr. Selye comments: “We have found that when completion of one particular task becomes impossible, diversion . . . is frequently as good as—if not better than—a rest.” A hobby such as writing, painting, knitting, shopwork or some other pursuit that you find interesting can ease tension.
And do not underestimate the value of physical exercise. Dr. Carruthers writes: “Most of the known risk factors in heart disease such as high blood fat levels, high blood pressure, sugar intolerance and rapid blood clotting have been found to decrease in suitably physical training schemes. The subjects also look and feel better, cope more easily at home and at work and sleep more soundly at night.” Chopping a log, painting a room, riding a bicycle, a vigorous and refreshing swim, indeed, any physical activity can do much to relieve tension.
During their formative years, youths are especially susceptible to stress. Dr. Aaron T. Beck explains how parents can help their youngsters to cope with tension:
“My own attitude is that while it’s good to give the child lots of love, it’s not enough. . . . What they do need is the opportunity to confront various problems when they’re young and learn to cope with them. . . . The parent shouldn’t do all the coping for the child. The idea is to make it a learning experience so the child will be able to solve similar types of problems that arise later on.”
Avoid Making Things Worse
You cannot avoid a measure of tension in your life. But do you make things worse than they have to be? It is known, for example, that the use of tobacco puts an extra load on the heart. One study indicated that caffeine from coffee increases secretion of a stress hormone in overly aroused individuals, though it does not do that for persons relaxed at home. And what about overeating and the abuse of alcohol? The Bible, at Luke 21:34, associates these excesses with “anxieties of life.” Could discontinuing some habits and modifying others result in less tension in your life?
There is another cause of day-to-day tension that many persons could easily avoid. What is that? The automobile. Tests with drivers who previously had heart attacks showed pulse rates of 180 beats per minute while behind the wheel, which is as high as that of racing drivers. Could replacing some driving by walking, cycling or using public transportation reduce the stress of life for you?
A way to avoid making things worse when you are under stress is not to take on additional unnecessary responsibilities. For example, if you presently have serious illness in your household, it would be unwise to make major changes in your life, such as moving or changing jobs, until the illness has passed.
Many situations that breed excess tension come up unexpectedly. To minimize the harmful effects of these calls for training the mind in advance. A fine principle is found in the Bible at Ecclesiastes 7:8, 9: “Better is one who is patient than one who is haughty in spirit. Do not hurry yourself in your spirit to become offended, for the taking of offense is what rests in the bosom of the stupid ones.” Reacting in a mild manner when one is provoked may benefit one’s antagonist, too, for the Scriptures also state: “An answer, when mild, turns away rage.”—Prov. 15:1.
In short, what can you do about tension? If it springs from an attitude of mind, change the attitude. Seek a change of pace from your regular routine through periodic breaks, through physical activity or by pursuing a constructive hobby. If possible, avoid aggravating, stress-producing situations, and prepare yourself in advance for unexpected stress.