What and Why? 

Stress is engineers’ jargon for the load on a structure; strain is the bending it causes, which may or may not be damaging. This idea was borrowed by Hans Selye when he began to study how animals respond to challenge. But being new to English he confused stress with strain, and set people thinking that stress includes strain automatically. Selye showed, on the contrary, that the level at which a stress produces harmful strain varies according to circumstance — and circumstances can be changed.

So stress is really just another word for challenge, and strain means effort. Any worthwhile objective challenges you to make the effort of reaching for it, in defiance of the odds against success. That goes for the appetites that prompt you to maintain yourself from day to day, just as for the more distant hopes that keep you striving from year to year. Any goal or need you hunger for is stressful, in the proper sense.

Only when your goal eludes you does the strain begin to show. You can cope with enormous unrequited stresses for a few days or weeks, and moderate ones for months or years. But what you can bear indefinitely is limited by the recuperative power you can muster and renew day by day.

In health you learn to play things for the best, matching your strategy to circumstances. You only rush an objective you know you can quickly gain without exhaustion. You pace yourself for longer tasks, aiming to hold out to the deadline and then rest for a spell. Or, when your best resources prove totally unequal to a particularly challenging task, you can choose either to change it, or to join forces with others who share it, or to abandon it altogether. No healthy living thing should ever be faced with an unacceptable stress burden.

But society imposes some stresses you cannot modify like this. They are asserted from outside you as the duties and obligations of membership. Though society also owes you the opportunity to meet these obligations as well as your personal needs, the resources are inappropriate and unevenly distributed.

If so, you may be helpless both to avoid an obligation and to meet it, stressed beyond your means by a goal you cannot change. Your primal adaptive system is in overdrive with nowhere to go. Selye explained what happens then:

  • First you resist, putting up a vigorous and obvious fight to re-assert yourself. This lasts hours, a few days at most.
  • Next you adapt, adjusting to the situation and feeling well but still grumbling inwardly, over-spending on reserves in order to cope (see tiredness). You can keep this up for months or years.
  • Eventually you get exhausted by this effort, and symptoms begin: headaches, depression, indigestion and tension are typical of these. Unless you are rescued, or drop out of society altogether, your health will in due course break down catastrophically.

This stress disease epitomizes our failure to understand healthy human needs and underlies all forms of personal and collective violence. It calls for fundamental changes in our social system, or it too will break down.

What can I do?

Advice to maximise and maintain your health

1. If you have stress disease you need to know. Look for frequent unaccountable tension or nervousness , liability to angry or violent outbursts you do not really intend, dependence on smoking, alcohol or stimulants for energy or relaxation. Total apathy and depression mean you are already exhausted, and constitute the least destructive form of breakdown.

2. Identify the challenge that is breaking you down. If your ambitions are inaccessible, talk with your family and change them. Find a healthier outlet for your pent up energies, which meets your real needs more appropriately. There are less expensive places to live and happier ways to provide for yourselves. They may be less prestigious but may correspond much better to your natural tolerance and capabilities.

3. Next attend to your diet (see food for health). Healthy food costs no more because you need less of it. It greatly increases your ability to cope and is essential to recovery from stress disease.

4. Supplements of Brewer’s Yeast (9 tablets daily) plus Vitamins B5 (as Calcium Pantothenate 50mg twice daily) and B15 (Pangamic Acid 50mg twice daily — optimise your stress tolerance. Siberian Ginseng (Eleutherococcus Senticosis, 250-500mg up to three times daily) is a more expensive but valuable addition, and preferable to the more readily available oriental or panax ginseng which is a good second best. Nature’s Own Ltd supply good versions of all these supplements.

5. If possible take a holiday break for recreation. The stress will still be there afterwards but you will have recovered some of your stamina for dealing with it. Provided you now tackle your stress more appropriately you will not simply run down again to the same state as before.

6. Deal with underlying problems. If tension, nervousness, sleeplessness, smoking or dependence on alcohol and stimulants does not ease automatically, deal with each of them in turn. They undermine your capacity for tackling the main problem, however much you feel reliant on them.

7. Address your mental health. If failure brings you face to face with basic problems in your personality, ask for help. The clinical psychology department of your local hospital is the place to start; you may first need a doctor’s letter.

8. Do not give up hope. That reduces your life to mere survival.

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