NERVOUS STRAIN IN THE EMOTIONS
THE most intense suffering which follows a misuse of the nervous power comes from exaggerated, unnecessary, or sham emotions. We each have our own emotional microscope, and the strength of its lens increases in proportion to the supersensitiveness of our nervous system. If we are a little tired, an emotion which in itself might hardly be noticed, so slight is the cause and so small the result, will be magnified many times. If we are very tired, the magnifying process goes on until often we have made ourselves ill through various sufferings, all of our own manufacture.
This increase of emotion has not always nervous fatigue as an excuse. Many people have inherited emotional magnifying glasses, and carry them through the world, getting and giving unnecessary pain, and losing more than half of the delight of life in failing to get an unprejudiced view of it. If the tired man or woman would have the good sense to stop for one minute and use the power which is given us all of understanding and appreciating our own perverted states and so move on to better, how easy it would be to recognize that a feeling is exaggerated because of fatigue, and wait until we have gained the power to drop our emotional microscopes and save all the evil results of allowing nervous excitement to control us. We are even permitted to see clearly an inherited tendency to magnify emotions and to overcome it to such an extent that life seems new to us. This must be done by the individual himself, through a personal appreciation of his own mistakes and active steps to free himself from them. No amount of talking, persuading, or teaching will be of the slightest service until that personal recognition comes. This has been painfully proved too often by those who see a friend suffering unnecessarily, and in the short-sighted attempt to wrench the emotional microscope from his hand, simply cause the hold to tighten and the magnifying power to increase. A careful, steady training of the physique opens the way for a better practice of the wholesome philosophy, and the microscope drops with the relaxation of the external tension which has helped to hold it.
Emotions are often not even exaggerated but are from the beginning imaginary; and there are no more industrious imps of evil than these sham feelings. The imps have no better field for their destructive work than in various forms of morbid, personal attachment, and in what is commonly called religion,–but which has no more to do with genuine religion than the abnormal personal likings have to do with love.
It is a fact worthy of notice that the two powers most helpful, most strengthening, when sincerely felt and realized, are the ones oftenest perverted and shammed, through morbid states and abnormal nervous excitement. The sham is often so perfect an image of the reality that even the shammer is deceived.
To tell one of these pseudo-religious women that the whole attitude of her externally sanctified life is a sham emotion, would rouse anything but a saintly spirit, and surprise her beyond measure. Yet the contrast between the true, healthful, religious feeling and the sham is perfectly marked, even though both classes follow the same forms and belong to the same charitable societies. With the one, religion seems to be an accomplishment, with a rivalry as to who can carry it to the finest point; with the other, it is a steadily growing power of wholesome use.
This nervous strain from sham emotions, it must be confessed, is more common to the feminine nature. So dangerously prevalent is it that in every girls’ school a true repression of the sham and a development of real feeling should be the thoughtful, silent effort of all the teachers. Any one who knows young girls feels deeply the terrible harm which comes to them in the weakening of their delicate, nervous systems through morbid, emotional excitement. The emotions are vividly real to the girls, but entirely sham in themselves. Great care must be taken to respect the sense of reality which a young girl has in these mistakes, until she can be led out so far that she herself recognizes the sham; then will come a hearty, wholesome desire to be free from it.
A school governed by a woman with strong “magnetism,” and an equally strong love of admiration and devotion, can be kept in a chronic state of hysteria by the emotional affection of the girls for their teacher. When they cannot reach the teacher they will transfer the feeling to one another. Where this is allowed to pervade the atmosphere of a girls’ school, those who escape floods of tears or other acute hysterical symptoms are the dull, phlegmatic temperaments.
Often a girt will go from one of these morbid attachments to another, until she seems to have lost the power for a good, wholesome affection. Strange as it may seem, the process is a steady hardening of the heart. The same result comes to man or woman who has followed a series of emotional flirtations,–the perceptions are dulled, and the whole tone of the system, mental and physical, is weakened. The effect is in exact correspondence in another degree with the result which follows an habitual use of stimulants.
Most abnormal emotional states are seen in women–and sometimes in men–who believe themselves in love. The suffering is to them very real. It seems cruel to say, “My dear, you are not in the least in love with that man; you are in love with your own emotions. If some one more attractive should appear, you could at once transfer your emotional tortures to the seemingly more worthy object.” Such ideas need not be flung in so many words at a woman, but she may be gently led until she sees clearly for herself the mistake, and will even laugh at the morbid sensations that before seemed to her terribly real.
How many foolish, almost insane actions of men and women come from sham emotions and the nervous excitement generated by them, or from nervous excitement and the sham emotions that result in consequence!
Care should be taken first to change the course of the nervous power that is expressing itself morbidly, to open for it a healthy outlet, to guide it into that more wholesome channel, and then help the owner to a better control and a clearer understanding, that she may gain a healthy use of her wonderful nervous power. A gallop on horseback, a good swim, fresh air taken with any form of wholesome fun and exercise is the way to begin if possible. A woman who has had all the fresh air and interesting exercise she needs, will shake off the first sign of morbid emotions as she would shake off a rat or any other vermin.
To one who is interested to study the possible results of misdirected nervous power, nothing could illustrate it with more painful force than the story by Rudyard Kipling, “In the Matter of a Private.”
Real emotions, whether painful or delightful, leave one eventually with a new supply of strength; the sham, without exception, leave their victim weaker, physically and mentally, unless they are recognized as sham, and voluntarily dismissed by the owner of the nerves that have been rasped by them. It is an inexpressibly sad sight to see a woman broken, down and an invalid, for no reason whatever but the unnecessary nervous excitement of weeks and months of sham emotion. Hardly too strong an appeal can be made to mothers and teachers for a careful watchfulness of their girls, that their emotions be kept steadily wholesome, so that they may grow and develop into that great power for use and healthful sympathy which always belongs to a woman of fine feeling.
There is a term used in college which describes most expressively an intense nervous excitement and want of control,–namely, “dry drunk.” It has often seemed to me that sham emotions are a woman’s form of getting drunk, and nervous prostration is its delirium tremens. Not the least of the suffering caused by emotional excitement comes from mistaken sympathy with others. Certain people seem to live on the principle that if a friend is in a swamp, it is necessary to plunge in with him; and that if the other man is up to his waist, the sympathizer shows his friendliness by allowing the mud to come up to his neck. Whereas, it is evident that the deeper my friend is immersed in a swamp, the more sure I must be to keep on firm ground that I may help him out; and sometimes I cannot even give my hand, but must use a long pole, the more surely to relieve him from danger. It is the same with a mental or moral swamp, or most of all with a nervous swamp, and yet so little do people appreciate the use of this long pole that if I do not cry when my friend cries, moan when my friend moans, and persistently refuse to plunge into the same grief that I may be of more real use in helping him out of it, I am accused by my friend and my friend’s friend of coldness and want of sympathy. People have been known to refuse the other end of your pole because you will not leave it and come into the swamp with them.
It is easy to see why this mistaken sympathy is the cause of great unnecessary nervous strain. The head nurse of a hospital in one of our large cities was interrupted while at dinner by the deep interest taken by the other nurses in seeing an accident case brought in. When the man was put out of sight the nurses lost their appetite from sympathy; and the forcible way with which their superior officer informed them that if they had any real sympathy for the man they would eat to gain strength to serve him, gave a lesson by which many nervous sympathizers could greatly profit.
Of course it is possible to become so hardened that you “eat your dinner” from a want of feeling, and to be consumed only with sympathy for yourself; but it is an easy matter to make the distinction between a strong, wholesome sympathy and selfish want of feeling, and easier to distinguish between the sham sympathy and the real. The first causes you to lose nervous strength, the second gives you new power for wholesome use to others.
In all the various forms of nervous strain ,which we study to avoid, let us realize and turn from false sympathy as one to be especially and entirely shunned.
Sham emotions are, of course, always misdirected force; but it is not unusual to see a woman suffering from nervous prostration caused by nervous power lying idle. This form of invalidism comes to women who have not enough to fill their lives in necessary interest and work, and have not thought of turning or been willing to turn their attention to some needed charity or work for others. A woman in this state is like a steam-engine with the fire in full blast, and the boiler shaking with the power of steam not allowed to escape in motive force.
A somewhat unusual example of this is a young woman who had been brought up as a nervous invalid, had been through nervous prostration once, and was about preparing for another attack, when she began to work for a better control of her nervous force. After gaining a better use of her machine, she at once applied its power to work,–gradually at first and then more and more, until she found herself able to endure what others had to give up as beyond their strength.
The help for these, and indeed for all cases, is to make the life objective instead of subjective. “Look out, not in; look up, not down; lend a hand,” is the motto that must be followed gently and gradually, but surely, to cure or to prevent a case of “Americanitis.”
But again, good sense and care must be taken to preserve the equilibrium; for nervous tension and all the suffering that it brings come more often from mistaken devotion to others than from a want of care for them. Too many of us are trying to make special Providences of ourselves for our friends. To say that this short-sighted martyrdom is not only foolish but selfish seems hard, but a little thought will show it to be so.
A woman sacrifices her health in over-exertion for a friend. If she does not distress the object of her devotion entirely out of proportion to the use she performs, she at least unfits herself, by over-working, for many other uses, and causes more suffering than she saves. So are the great ends sacrificed to the smaller.
“If you only knew how hard I am trying to do right” comes with a strained face and nervous voice from many and many a woman. If she could only learn in this case, as in others, of “vaulting ambition that o’er-leaps itself and falls upon the other side;” if she could only realize that the very strained effort with which she tries, makes it impossible for her to gain,–if she would only “relax” to whatever she has to do, and then try, the gain would be incomparable.
The most intense sufferers from nervous excitement are those who suppress any sign of their feeling. The effort to “hold in” increases the nervous strain immensely. As in the case of one etherized, who has suppressed fright which he feels very keenly, as soon as the voluntary muscles are relaxed the impression on the brain shows itself with all the vehemence of the feeling,–so when the muscles are consciously relaxed the nervous excitement bursts forth like the eruption of a small volcano, and for a time is a surprise to the man or woman who has been in a constant effort of suppression.
The contrast between true self-control and that which is merely repressed feeling, is, like all contrast between the natural and the artificial, immeasurable; and the steadily increasing power to be gained by true self-control cannot be conveyed in words, but must be experienced in. actual use.
Many of us know with what intense force a temper masters us when, having held in for some time, some spring is touched which makes silence impossible, and the sense of relief which follows a volley of indignant words. To say that we can get a far greater and more lasting relief without a word, but simply through relaxing our muscles and freeing our excited nerves, seems tame; but it is practically true, and is indeed the only way from a physical standpoint that one may be sure of controlling a high temper. In that way, also, we keep the spirit, the power, the strength, from which the temper comes, and so far from being tame, life has more for us. We do not tire ourselves and lose nervous force through the wear and tear of losing our temper. To speak expressively, if not scientifically, Let go, and let the temper slip over your nerves and off,–you do not lose it then, for you know where it is, and you keep all the nervous force that would have been used in suppression or expression for better work.
That, the reader will say, is not so easy as it sounds. Granted, there must be the desire to get a true control of the temper; but most of us have that desire, and while we cannot expect immediate success, steady practice will bring startling results sooner than we realize. There must be a clear, intelligent understanding of what we are aiming at, and how to gain it; but that is not difficult, and once recognized grows steadily as we gain practical results. Let the first feeling of anger be a reminder to “let go.” But you will say, “I do not want to let go,”–only because your various grandfathers and grandmothers were unaccustomed to relieving themselves in that manner. When we give way to anger and let it out in a volley of words, there is often a sense of relief, but more often a reaction which is most unpleasant, and is greatly increased by the pain given to others. The relief is certain if we “relax;” and not only is there then no painful reaction, but we gain a clear head to recognize the justice or injustice of our indignation, and to see what can be done about its cause.
Petty irritability can be met in the same way. As with nervous pain it seems at first impossible to “relax to it;” but the Rubicon once crossed, we cannot long be irritable,–it is so much simpler not to be, and so much more comfortable.
If when we are tempted to fly into a rage or to snap irritably at others we could go through a short process of relaxing motions, the effect would be delightful. But that would be ridiculous; and we must do our relaxing in the privacy of the closet and recall it when needed outside, that we may relax without observation except in its happy results. I know people will say that anything to divert the mind will cure a high temper or irritability. That is only so to a limited extent; and so far as it is so, simply proves the best process of control. Diversion relieves the nervous excitement, turning the attention in another direction,–and so is relaxing so far as it goes.
Much quicker and easier than self-control is the control which allows us to meet the irritability of others without echoing it. The temptation to echo a bad temper or an irritable disposition in others, we all know; but the relief which comes to ourselves and to the sufferer as we quietly relax and refuse to reflect it, is a sensation that many of us have yet to experience. One keeps a clear head in that way, not to mention a charitable heart; saves any quantity of nervous strain, and keeps off just so much tendency to nervous prostration.
Practically the way is opened to this better control through a physical training which gives us the power of relaxing at will, and so of maintaining a natural, wholesome equilibrium of nerves and muscles.
Personal sensitiveness is, to a great degree, a form of nervous tension. An individual case of the relief of this sensitiveness, although laughable in the means of cure, is so perfectly illustrative of it that it is worth telling. A lady who suffered very much from having her feelings hurt came to me for advice. I told her whenever anything was said to wound her, at once to imagine her legs heavy,–that relaxed her muscles, freed her nerves, and relieved the tension caused by her sensitive feelings. The cure seemed to her wonderful. It would not have done for her to think a table heavy, or a chair, or to have diverted her mind in any other way, for it was the effect of relaxation in her own body that she wanted, which came from persistently thinking her legs heavy. Neither could her sensitiveness have taken a very deep hold, or mere outside relaxation would not have reached it; but that outside process had the effect of greatly assisting in the power to use a higher philosophy with the mind.
Self-consciousness and all the personal annoyances that come with or follow it are to so great an extent nervous tension, that the ease with which they may be helped seems sometimes like a miracle to those who study for a better guidance of their bodies.
Of worries, from the big worries with a real foundation to the miserable, petty, nagging worries that wear a woman’s nervous system more than any amount of steady work, there is so much to be said that it would prove tedious, and indeed unnecessary to recount them. A few words will suggest enough toward their remedy to those who are looking in the right direction, and to others many words would be of no avail.
The petty worries are the most wearing, and they fortunately are the most easily helped. By relaxing the muscular contractions invariably accompanying them we seem to make an open channel, and they slip through,–which expression I am well aware is not scientific. The common saying, “Cares roll off her like water off a duck’s back,” means the same thing. Some human ducks are made with backs eminently fitted for cares to slip from; but those whose backs seem to be made to hold the cares can remould themselves to the right proportions, and there is great compensation in their appreciation of the contrast.
Never resist a worry. It is increased many times by the effort to overcome it. The strain of the effort makes it constantly more difficult to drop the strain of the worry. When we quietly go to work to relax the muscles and so quiet the nerves, ignoring a worry, the way in which it disappears is surprising. Then is the time to meet it with a broad philosophizing on the uselessness of worry, etc., and “clinch” our freedom, so to speak.
It is not at the first attempt to relax, or the second, or the ninth, that the worry will disappear for many of us, and especially for worriers. It takes many hours to learn what relaxing is; but having once learned, its helpful power is too evident for us not to keep at it, if we really desire to gain our freedom.
To give the same direction to a worrier that was so effective with the woman whose feelings were easily hurt, may seem equally ridiculous; but in many cases it will certainly prove most useful. When you begin to worry, think your legs heavy. Your friends will appreciate the relief more than you do, and will gain as you gain.
A recital of all the emotional disturbances which seem to have so strong a hold on us, and which are merely misdirected nervous force, might easily fill a volume; but a few of the most common troubles, such as have been given, will perhaps suffice to help each individual to understand his own especial temptations in that direction,–and if I have made even partially clear the ease with which they may be relieved through careful physical training, it is all I can hope for.
The body must be trained to obey the mind; the mind must be trained to give the body commands worth obeying.
The real feelings of life are too exquisite and strengthening in their depth and power to be crowded out by those gross forms of nervous excitement which I can find no better name for than sham emotions. If we could only realize this more broadly, and bring up the children with a wholesome dread of morbid feeling what a marked change would there be in the state of the entire race!
All physicians agree that in most cases it is not overwork, it is not mental strain, that causes the greater number of cases of nervous disturbance, but that they are more often brought on by emotional strain.
The deepest grief, as well as the greatest joy, can be met in a way to give new strength and new power for use if we have a sound philosophy and a well-guided, wholesome body to meet it. But these last are the work of years; and neither the philosophy nor the physical strength can be brought to bear at short notice, although we can do much toward a better equilibrium even late in life.
Various forms of egotism, if not exactly sham emotions, are the causes of great nervous strain. Every physician knows the intense egotism which often comes with nervous prostration. Some one has very aptly said that insanity is only egotism gone to seed. It often seems so, especially when it begins with nervous prostration. We cannot be too careful to shun this nervous over-care for self.
We inherit so strongly the subjective way of living rather than the objective, that it impresses itself upon our very nerves; and they, instead of being open channels for the power always at our command to pass freely to the use for which it is intended, stop the way by means of the attention which is so uselessly turned back on ourselves, our narrow personal interests, and our own welfare. How often we see cases where by means of the nervous tension all this has increased to a disease, and the tiresome Ego is a monster in the way of its owner and all his would-be friends. “I cannot bear this.” “I shall take cold.” “If you only knew how I suffered.” Why should we know, unless through knowing we can give you some relief? And so it goes, I–I–I–forever, and the more the more nervous prostration.
Keep still, that all which is good may come to you, and live out to others that your life may broaden for use. In this way we can take all that Nature is ready to give us, and will constantly give us, and use it as hers and for her purposes, which are always the truest and best Then we live as a little child would live,–only with more wisdom.