Tension's Little Trigger Men

One of the secrets of good health is to escape the tyranny of telephone, clock and calandar

Tension's Little Trigger Men

By Richard H. Hoffman, M.D.

As told to Clarence W. Hall

Condensed from The American Weekly

I saw Bill Jones's picture staring at me from the obituary columns I the other day. A highly successful executive in his early 40's, Jones had come to me a few months before. He had the symptoms of several diseases - headaches, insomnia, loss of appetite, rising blood pressure. Yet examinations showed no organic disruption. A few days later I dropped into his office, spent a half hour observing his work habits. Then I said: "There's nothing wrong with you, Bill, that you yourself can't cure. You're simply allowing yourself to be riddled by three of today's most potent killers - the Telephone, the Clock and the Calendar. They can be the trigger men of your death."

They were.

I volunteered the same warning to a harried housewife. When she came to my office she was a museum of complaints for which careful diagnosis could reveal no physical cause. From the description of her average day, I got the picture of a civic do-gooder furiously dashing about between kitchen stove, an ever-jangling telephone and endless deeds of mercy. She somehow found time to fret constantly over her limited household budget, worry over appointments and entertain an almost paranoiac fear of the future.

"Right now," I told her, "you are nothing more than a victim of your telephone, clock and calendar. As such, however, you have made yourself a likely candidate for any of a number of real diseases."

She listened impatiently to my advice on how to revise her manner of stressful living, then flounced out, annoyed that I had not uncovered an interesting psychiatric condition or prescribed some glandular injection. Six months later she was taken with a severe - and fatal - kidney ailment.

Both she and Bill Jones, like many of the hundreds of thousands of other middle-aged people who this year will succumb to stroke, hypertension, angina pectoris and gastrointestinal diseases, were active accessories to their own killing.

The hospitals are full of people with nervous troubles - most of them caused by such out-of-hand emotions as anxiety, despair, discontent, fear, frustration. By our own habits we heckle our nerves with minor irritations, reduce efficiency of body and mind, sour our dispositions and turn existence into a rat race.

After 40 years of general and psychiatric practice, I am convinced that tensive states, being self-induced, must be self-cured. I am further convinced that worriers would do well to start with those despots, the telephone, the clock and the calendar.

The telephone's peculiar tyranny is that of interruption. People in public life are not being arrogant when they refuse to have their phone numbers listed. They won't allow themselves to become victims of the telephone's conversational shrapnel.

Few of us can afford the luxury of a secretary who acts as a buffer, yet we can learn to live more calmly with the phone. Have the instrument placed as far from your usual base of operations as convenience will allow. Before answering, relax, take a few deep breaths, compose your suddenly aroused nerves. Don't run; walk toward it. When phoning others, ask: "Are you busy now? Will it be more convenient if I call back later?" Make your calls as brief as possible. The dawdlers and gossips who tie up a line indefinitely provoke needless resentment.

The clock's despotism is the tyranny of appointment. Safety experts estimate that nine tenths of the accidents on streets and in homes are caused by careless rushing. Bent on beating a deadline, tens of thousands of us every year jaywalk to our deaths, accelerate our cars into fatal smashups, fall down stairs or skid on skittery rugs.

Resolve to make your whole day less dominated by the ticking tyranny of clocks. Get into the habit of starting a few minutes earlier to work; the same in keeping an appointment. Avoid making your day's program too tight with successive engagements. Pad your time budget with little chunks of extra minutes to rediscover what Don Herold calls "the lost art of doing nothing." Leave some leeway for emergencies. You will be amazed how this increases your efficiency and conserves your vitality.

The tyranny the calendar exercises is that of apprehension; it gets in its most killing licks when we allow the morrow to saddle us with unreasoning fears. I have a patient who regularly goes into an emotional tailspin with the advent of each income-tax day. Other calendar dates produce repeated tensive states - such as the first of the month, a time for paying bills.

The fear of growing old is perhaps the calendar's sharpest thrust. Scores of people are plunged into mental and physical upset by fear of future insecurity, loneliness, failure, sickness. The modern cult of youth has created the silly concept that in youth alone is beauty and excitement and achievement. Now, happily, a host of individuals are demonstrating the fallacy of that notion.

Only a few years ago a star of stage and screen brought me her woes. She wailed that she was a has-been, with glamour gone, youth long past. I scoffed at her: "Why not be your age - and act your age?" She accepted the leading role in a dramatic production featuring a has-been, and rose to popular acclaim. Now, healthy in body and spirit, she boasts about grandchildren whose existence she had kept hidden before.

No better advice was ever given the calendar-cowed than that offered by Sir William Osler: "Waste of energy, mental distress, nervous worries dog the man who is anxious about the future. Cultivate the habit of a life of day tight compartments" - with each day sufficient unto itself.

You will have taken one of the longest steps toward the achievement of serene living when you tackle these tyrannies of the telephone, the clock and the calendar. Three simple rules will start you:

Look inside yourself. The human body is a delicately adjusted mechanism. Whenever its even tenor is startled by some intruding emotion like sudden fright, anger or worry, the sympathetic nervous system flashes an emergency signal and the organs and glands spring into action. The adrenal glands shoot into the blood stream a surcharge of adrenalin which raises the blood sugar above normal needs. The pancreas then secretes insulin to burn the excessive fuel. But this bonfire burns not only the excess but the normal supply. The result is a blood sugar shortage and an underfeeding of all vital organs. So the adrenals supply another charge, the pancreas burns the fuel again, and the vicious cycle goes on. This battle of the glands brings on exhaustion.

The body can handle a reasonable number of emergency calls. But if they are repeated too often, your nerves and organs and glands, fatigued from trying to keep up with all those confusing false alarms, finally quit - and you're in for a nervous breakdown.

Look at yourself. If we who rush and worry needlessly could see ourselves as others see us, simple pride would stop us. Let any morbidly distraught woman consult her mirror when she is under the lash of our trinity of tyrants, her face ugly with frowns, her jaws clenched. Cosmetic tricks won't banish those beauty destroyers.

A candid survey of ourselves might also make us cease calling our stressful commotion by such flattering names as "diligence to duty . . . love of getting things done . . . wise provision for the future."

Look away from yourself. Practice lifting your mind, every now and again, above the rush and confusion around you. Take time out during your busiest day to think of something pleasant. Says Edwin Markham: "At the heart of the cyclone tearing the sky is a place of central calm." Each of us, in cyclonic situations, has his own place of "central calm." One secret of living above the tensions of the day is finding that place - and repairing to it often.

Paste a skull-and-crossbone label on your telephone, clock and calendar. Then sit back and say - as did the late Mahatma Gandhi - "There is more to life than increasing its speed."

Copyright 1951 by The Reader's Digest Association, Inc. (August 1951 issue)

Condensed from The American Weekly, July 15, 1951

changed October 28, 2010