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NERVES AND COMMON SENSE
ANNIE PAYSON CALL
First digital edition 2017 by Maria Ruggieri
PEOPLE form habits which cause nervous strain. When these habits have fixed themselves for long enough upon their victims, the nerves give way and severe depression or some other form of nervous prostration is the result. If such an illness turns the attention to its cause, and so starts the sufferer toward a radical change from habits which cause nervous strain to habits which bring nervous strength, then the illness can be the beginning of better and permanent health. If, however, there simply is an enforced rest, without any intelligent understanding of the trouble, the invalid gets “well” only to drag out a miserable existence or to get very ill again.
Although any nervous suffering is worthwhile if it is the means of teaching us how to avoid nervous strain, it certainly is far preferable to avoid the strain without the extreme pain of a nervous breakdown.
To point out many of these pernicious habits and to suggest a practical remedy for each and all of them is the aim of this book, and for that reason common examples in various phases of every-day life are used as illustrations.
When there is no organic trouble there can be no doubt that defects of character, inherited or acquired, are at the root of all nervous illness. If this can once be generally recognized and acknowledged, especially by the sufferers themselves, we are in a fair way toward eliminating such illness entirely.
The trouble is people suffer from mortification and an unwillingness to look their bad habits in the face. They have not learned that humiliation can be wholesome, sound, and healthy, and so they keep themselves in a mess of a fog because they will not face the shame necessary to get out of it. They would rather be ill and suffering, and believe themselves to have strong characters than to look the weakness of their characters in the face, own up to them like men, and come out into open fresh air with healthy nerves which will gain in strength as they live.
Any intelligent man or woman who thinks a bit for himself can see the stupidity of this mistaken choice at a glance, and seeing it will act against it and thus do so much toward bringing light to all nervously prostrated humanity.
We can talk about faith cure, Christian Science, mind cure, hypnotism, psychotherapeutics, or any other forms of nerve cure which at the very best can only give the man a gentle shunt toward the middle of the stream of life. Once assured of the truth, the man must hold himself in the clean wholesomeness of it by actively working for his own strength of character from his own initiative. There can be no other permanent cure.
I say that strength of character must grow from our own initiative, and I should add that it must be from our own initiative that we come to recognize and actively believe that we are dependent upon a power not our own and our real strength comes from ceasing to be an obstruction to that power. The work of not interfering with our best health, moral and physical, means hard fighting and steady, never-ending vigilance. But it pays it more than pays! And, it seems to me, this prevailing trouble of nervous strain which is so much with us now can be the means of guiding all men and women toward more solid health than has ever been known before. But we must work for it! We must give up expecting to be cured.
MANY people suffer unnecessarily from “nerves” just for the want of a little knowledge of how to adjust themselves in order that the nerves may get well. As an example, I have in mind a little woman who had been ill for eight years eight of what might have been the best years of her life all because neither she nor her family knew the straight road toward getting well. Now that she has found the path she has gained health wonderfully in six months, and promises to be better than ever before in her life.
Let me tell you how she became ill and then I can explain her process of getting well again. One night she was overtired and could not get to sleep, and became very much annoyed at various noises that were about the house. Just after she had succeeded in stopping one noise she would go back to bed and hear several others. Finally, she was so worked up and nervously strained over the noises that her hearing became exaggerated, and she was troubled by noises that other people would not have even heard; so, she managed to keep herself awake all night.
The next day the strain of the overfatigue was, of course, very much increased, not only by the wakeful night, but also by the annoyance which had kept her awake. The family were distressed that she should not have slept all night; talked a great deal about it, and called in the doctor.
The woman’s strained nerves were on edge all day, so that her feelings were easily hurt, and her brothers and sisters became, as they thought, justly impatient at what they considered her silly babyishness. This, of course, roused her to more strain. The overcare and the feeble, unintelligent sympathy that she had from some members of her family kept her weak and self-centered, and the ignorant, selfish impatience with which the others treated her increased her nervous strain. After this there followed various other worries and a personal sense of annoyance--all of which made her more nervous.
Then--the stomach and brain are so closely associated--her digestion began to cause her discomfort: a lump in her stomach, her food “would not digest,” and various other symptoms, all of which mean strained and overwrought nerves, although they are more often attributed merely to a disordered stomach. She worried as to what she had better eat and what she had better not eat. If her stomach was tired and some simple food disagreed with her all the discomfort was attributed to the food, instead of to the real cause, a tired stomach, and the cause back of that, strained nerves. The consequence was that one kind of wholesome food after another was cut off as being impossible for her to eat. Anything that this poor little invalid did not like about circumstances or people she felt ugly and cried over. Finally, the entire family were centered about her illness, either in overcare or annoyance.
You see, she kept constantly repeating her brain impression of overfatigue: first annoyance because she stayed awake; then annoyance at noises; then excited distress that she should have stayed awake all night; then resistance and anger at other people who interfered with her. Over and over that brain impression of nervous illness was repeated by the woman herself and people about her until she seemed settled into it for the rest of her life. It was like expecting a sore to get well while it was constantly being rubbed and irritated. A woman might have the healthiest blood in the world, but if she cut herself and then rubbed and irritated the cut, and put salt in it, it would be impossible for it to heal.
Now let me tell you how this little woman got well. The first thing she did was to take some very simple relaxing exercises while she was lying in bed. She raised her arms very slowly and as loosely as she could from the elbow and then her hands from the wrist, and stretched and relaxed her fingers steadily, then dropped her hand and forearm heavily, and felt it drop slowly at first, then quickly and quietly, with its own weight. She tried to shut her eyes like a baby going to sleep, and followed that with long, gentle, quiet breaths. These and other exercises gave her an impression of quiet relaxation so that she became more sensitive to superfluous tension.
When she felt annoyed at noises she easily noticed that in response to the annoyance her whole body became tense and strained. After she had done her exercises and felt quiet and rested something would happen or someone would say something that went against the grain, and quick as a wink all the good of the exercises would be gone and she would be tight and strained again, and nervously irritated.
Very soon she saw clearly that she must learn to drop the habit of physical strain if she wanted to get well; but she also learned what was more far more important than that: that she must conquer the cause of the strain or she could never permanently drop it. She saw that the cause was resentment and resistance to the noises the circumstances, the people, and all the variety of things that had “made her nervous.”
Then she began her steady journey toward strong nerves and a wholesome, happy life. She began the process of changing her brain impressions. If she heard noises that annoyed her she would use her will to direct her attention toward dropping resistance to the noises, and in order to drop her mental resistance she gave her attention to loosening out the bodily contractions. Finally, she became interested in the new process as in a series of deep and true experiments. Of course, her living and intelligent interest enabled her to gain very much faster, for she not only enjoyed her growing freedom, but she also enjoyed seeing her experiments work. Nature always tends toward health, and if we stop interfering with her she will get us well.
There is just this difference between the healing of a physical sore and the healing of strained and irritated nerves with the one our bodies are healed, and things go on in them about the same as before. With the other, every use of the will to free ourselves from the irritation and its cause not only enables us to get free from the nervous illness, but in addition brings us new nerve vigor.
When nervous illness is met deeply enough and in the normal way, the result is that the nerves become stronger than ever before.
Often the effect of nervous strain in women is constant talking. Talk – talk - talk, and mostly about themselves, their ailments, their worries, and the hindrances that are put in their way to prevent their getting well. This talking is not a relief, as people sometimes feel. It is a direct waste of vigor. But the waste would be greater if the talk were repressed. The only real help comes when the talker herself recognizes the strain of her talk and “loosens” into silence.
People must find themselves out to get well really well from nervous suffering. The cause of nervous strain is so often in the character and in the way, we meet circumstances and people that it seems essential to recognize our mistakes in that direction, and to face them squarely before we can do our part toward removing the causes of any nervous illness.
Remember it is not circumstances that keep us ill. It is not people that cause our illness. It is not our environment that overcomes us. It is the way we face and deal with circumstances, with people, and with environment that keeps our nerves irritated or keeps them quiet and wholesome and steady.
Let me tell the story of two men, both of whom were brought low by severe nervous breakdown. One complained of his environment, complained of circumstances, complained of people. Everything and every one was the cause of his suffering, except himself. The result was that he weakened his brain by the constant willful and enforced strain, so that what little health he regained was the result of Nature’s steady and powerful tendency toward health, and in spite of the man himself.
The other man to give a practical instance returned from a journey taken in order to regain the strength which he had lost from not knowing how to work. His business agent met him at the railroad station with a piece of very bad news. Instead of being frightened and resisting and contracting in every nerve of his body, he took it at once as an opportunity to drop resistance. He had learned to relax his body, and by doing relaxing and quieting exercises over and over he had given himself a brain impression of quiet and “let go” which he could recall at will. Instead of expressing distress at the bad news he used his will at once to drop resistance and relax; and, to the surprise of his informant, who had felt that he must break his bad news as easily as possible, he said “Anything else?” Yes, there was another piece of news about as bad as the first. “Go on,” answered the man who had been sick with nerves; “tell me something else.”
And so, he did, until he had told him five different things which were about as disagreeable and painful to hear as could have been. For every bit of news our friend used his will with decision to drop the resistance, which would, of course, at once arise in response to all that seemed to go against him.
He had, of course, to work at intervals for long afterward to keep free from the resistance; but the habit is getting more and more established as life goes on with him, and the result is a brain clearer than ever before in his life, a power of nerve which is a surprise to every one about him, and a most successful business career.
The success in business is, however, a minor matter. His brain would have cleared and his nerve strengthened just the same if what might be called the business luck had continued to go against him, as it seemed to do for the first few months after his recovery. That everything did go against him for some time was the greatest blessing he could have had. The way he met all the reverses increased his nerve power steadily and consistently.
These two men are fair examples of two extremes. The first one did not know how to meet life. If he had had the opportunity to learn he might have done as well as the other. The second had worked and studied to help himself out of nerves, and had found the true secret of doing it.
Some men, however, and, I regret to say, more women, have the weakening habit so strong upon them that they are unwilling to learn how to get well, even when they have the opportunity. It seems so strange to see people suffer intensely and be unwilling to face and follow the only way that will lead them out of their torture.
The trouble is we want our own way and nervous health, too, and with those who have once broken down nervously the only chance of permanent health is through learning to drop the strain of resistance when things do not go their way. This is proved over and over by the constant relapse into “nerves” which comes to those who have simply been healed over. Even with those who appear to have been well for some time, if they have not acquired the habit of dropping their mental and physical tension you can always detect an over care for themselves which means dormant fear--or even active fear in the background.
There are some wounds which the surgeons keep open, even though the process is most painful, because they know that to heal really, they must heal from the inside. Healing over on the outside only means decay underneath, and eventual death. This is in most cases exactly synonymous with the healing of broken-down nerves. They must be healed in causes to be permanently cured. Sometimes the change that comes in the process is so great that it is like reversing an engine.
If the little woman whom I mentioned first had practiced relaxing and quieting exercises every day for years, and had not used the quiet impression gained by the exercises to help her in dropping mental resistances, she never would have gained her health.
Concentrating steadily on dropping the tension of the body is very radically helpful in dropping resistance from the mind, and the right idea is to do the exercises over and over until the impression of quiet openness is, by constant repetition, so strong with us that we can recall it at will whenever we need it. Finally, after repeated tests, we gain the habit of meeting the difficulties of life without strain--first in little ways, and then in larger ways.
The most quieting, relaxing, and strengthening of all exercises for the nerves comes in deep and rhythmic breathing, and in voice exercises in connection with it. Nervous strain is more evident in a voice than in any other expressive part of man or woman. It sometimes seems as if all other relaxing exercises were mainly useful because of opening a way for us to breathe better. There is a pressure on every part of the body when we inhale, and a consequent reaction when we exhale, and the more passive the body is when we take our deep breaths the more freely and quietly the blood can circulate all the way through it, and, of course, all nervous and muscular contraction impairs circulation, and all impaired circulation emphasizes nervous contraction.
To anyone who is suffering from “nerves,” in a lesser or greater degree, it could not fail to be of very great help to take half an hour in the morning, lie flat on the back, with the body as loose and heavy as it can be made, and then study taking gentle, quiet, and rhythmic breaths, long and short. Try to have the body so loose and open and responsive that it will open as you inhale and relax as you exhale, just as a rubber bag would. Of course, it will take time, but the refreshing quiet is sure to come if the practice is repeated regularly for a long enough time, and eventually we would no more miss it than we would go without our dinner.
We must be careful after each deep, long breath to rest quietly and let our lungs do as they please. Be careful to begin the breaths delicately and gently, to inhale with the same gentleness with which we begin, and to make the change from inhaling to exhaling with the greatest delicacy possible keeping the body loose.
For the shorter breaths, we can count three, or five, or ten to inhale, and the same number to exhale, until we have the rhythm established, and then go on breathing without counting, as if we were sound asleep. Always aim for gentleness and delicacy. If we have not half an hour to spare to lie quietly and breathe we can practice the breathing while we walk. It is wonderful how we detect strain and resistance in our breath, and the restfulness which comes when we breathe so gently that the breath seems to come and go without our volition brings new life with it.
We must expect to gain slowly and be patient; we must remember that nerves always get well by ups and downs, and use our wills to make every down lead to a higher up. If we want the lasting benefit, or any real benefit at all when we get the brain impression of quiet freedom from these breathing exercises, we must insist upon recalling that impression every time a test comes, and face the circumstances, or the person, or the duty with a voluntary insistence upon a quiet, open brain, rather than a tense, resistant one.
It will come hard at first, but we are sure to get there if we keep steadily at it, for it is really the Law of the Lord God Almighty that we are learning to obey, and this process of learning gives us steadily an enlarged appreciation of what trust in the Lord really is. There is no trust without obedience, and an intelligent obedience begets trust. The nerves touch the soul on one side and the body on the other, and we must work for freedom of soul and body in response to spiritual and physical law if we want to get sick nerves well. If we do not remember always a childlike attitude toward the Lord the best nerve training is only an easy way of being selfish.
To sum it all up--if you want to learn to help yourself out of “nerves” learn to rest when you rest and to work without strain when you work; learn to loosen out of the muscular contractions which the nerves cause; learn to drop the mental resistances which cause the “nerves,” and which take the form of anger, resentment, worry, anxiety, impatience, annoyance, or self-pity; eat only nourishing food, eat it slowly, and chew it well; breathe the freshest air you can, and breathe it deeply, gently, and rhythmically; take what healthy, vigorous exercise you find possible; do your daily work to the best of your ability; give your attention so entirely to the process of gaining health for the sake of your work and other people that you have no mind left with which to complain of being ill, and see that all this effort aims toward a more intelligent obedience to and trustfulness in the Power that gives us life. Wholesome, sustained concentration is in the very essence of healthy nerves.
A WOMAN can feel rushed when she is sitting perfectly still and has really nothing whatever to do. A woman can feel at leisure when she is working diligently at something, with a hundred other things waiting to be done when the time comes. It is not all we have to do that gives us the rushed feeling; it is the way we do what is before us. It is the attitude we take toward our work.
Now this rushed feeling in the brain and nerves is intensely oppressive. Many women, and men too, suffer from it keenly, and they suffer the more because they do not recognize that that feeling of rush is really entirely distinct from what they have to do; in truth, it has nothing whatever to do with it.
I have seen a woman suffer painfully with the sense of being pushed for time when she had only two things to do in the whole day, and those two things at most need not take more than an hour each. This same woman was always crying for rest. I never knew, before I saw her, that women could get just as abnormal in their efforts to rest as in their insistence upon overwork. This little lady never rested when she went to rest; she would lie on the bed for hours in a state of strain about resting that was enough to tire any ordinarily healthy woman. One friend used to tell her that she was an inebriate on resting. It is perhaps needless to say that she was a nervous invalid, and in the process of gaining her health she had to be set to work and kept at work. Many and many a time she has cried and begged for rest when it was not rest she needed at all: it was work.
She has started off to some good, healthy work crying and sobbing at the cruelty that made her go, and has returned from the work as happy and healthy, apparently, as a little child. Then she could go to rest and rest to some purpose. She had been busy in wholesome action and the normal reaction came in her rest. As she grew more naturally interested in her work she rested less and less, and she rested better and better because she had something to rest from and something to rest for.
Now she does only a normal amount of resting, but gets new life from every moment of rest she takes; before, all her rest only made her want more rest and kept her always in the strain of fatigue. And what might seem to many a very curious result is that as the abnormal desire for rest disappeared the rushed feeling disappeared, too.
There is no one thing that American women need more than a healthy habit of rest, but it has got to be real rest, not strained nor self-indulgent rest.
Another example of this effort at rest which is a sham and a strain is the woman who insists upon taking a certain time every day in which to rest. She insists upon doing everything quietly and with as she thinks a sense of leisure, and yet she keeps the whole household in a sense of turmoil and does not know it. She sits complacently in her pose of prompt action, quietness and rest, and has a tornado all about her. She is so deluded in her own idea of herself that she does not observe the tornado, and yet she has caused it. Everybody in her household is tired out with her demands, and she herself is ill, chronically ill. But she thinks she is at peace, and she is annoyed that others should be tired.
If this woman could open and let out her own interior tornado, which she has kept frozen in there by her false attitude of restful quiet, she would be more ill for a time, but it might open her eyes to the true state of things and enable her to rest to some purpose and to allow her household to rest, too.
It seems, at first thought, strange that in this country, when the right habit of rest is so greatly needed, that the strain of rest should have become in late years one of the greatest defects. On second thought, however, we see that it is a perfectly rational result. We have strained to work and strained to play and strained to live for so long that when the need for rest gets so imperative that we feel we must rest the habit of strain is so upon us that we strain to rest. And what does such “rest” amount to? What strength does it bring us? What enlightenment do we get from it?
With the little lady of whom I first spoke rest was a steadily-weakening process. She was resting her body straight toward its grave. When a body rests and rests, the circulation gets more and more sluggish until it breeds disease in the weakest organ, and then the physicians seem inclined to give their attention to the disease, and not to the cause of the abnormal strain which was behind the disease. Again, as we have seen, the abnormal, rushed feeling can exist just as painfully with too much and the wrong kind of rest as with too much work and the wrong way of working.
We have been, as a nation, inclined toward “Americanistic” for so long now that children and children’s children have inherited a sense of rush, and they suffer intensely from it with a perfectly clear understanding of the fact that they have nothing whatever to hurry about. This is quite as true of men as it is of women. In such cases the first care should be not to fasten this sense of rush on to anything; the second care should be to go to work to cure it, to relax out of that contraction--just as you would work to cure twitching St. Vitus’s dance, or any other nervous habit.
Many women will get up and dress in the morning as if they had to catch a train, and they will come in to breakfast as if it were a steamer for the other side of the world that they had to get, and no other steamer went for six months. They do not know that they are in a rush and a hurry, and they do not find it out until the strain has been on them for so long that they get nervously ill from it and then they find themselves suffering from “that rushed feeling.”
Watch some women in an argument pushing, actually rushing, to prove themselves right; they will hardly let their opponent have an opportunity to speak, much less will they stop to consider what he says and see if by chance he may not be right and they wrong.
The rushing habit is not by any means in the fact of doing many things. It asserts itself in our brains in talking, in writing, in thinking. How many of us, I wonder, have what might be called a quiet working brain? Most of us do not even know the standard of a brain that thinks and talks and lives quietly: a brain that never pushes and never rushes, or, if by any chance, it is led into pushing or rushing, is so wholesomely sensitive that it drops the push or the rush as a bare hand would drop a red-hot coal.
None of us can appreciate the weakening power of this strained habit of rush until we have, by the use of our own wills, directed our minds toward finding a normal habit of quiet, and yet I do not in the least exaggerate when I say that its weakening effect on the brain and nerves is frightful.
And again, I repeat, the rushed feeling has nothing whatever to do with the work before us. A woman can feel quite as rushed when she has nothing to do as when she is extremely busy.
“But,” some one says, “may I not feel pressed for time when I have more to do than I can possibly put into the time before me?”
Oh, yes, yes--you can feel normally pressed for time; and because of this pressure you can arrange in your mind what best to leave undone, and so relieve the pressure. If one thing seems as important to do as another you can make up your mind that of course you can only do what you have time for, and the remainder must go. You cannot do what you have time to do so well if you are worrying about what you have no time for. There need be no abnormal sense of rush about it.
Just as Nature tends toward health, Nature tends toward rest toward the right kind of rest; and if we have lost the true knack of resting we can just as surely find it as a sunflower can find the sun. It is not something artificial that we are trying to learn it is something natural and alive, something that belongs to us, and our own best instinct will come to our aid in finding it if we will only first turn our attention toward finding our own best instinct.
We must have something to rest from, and we must have something to rest for, if we want to find the real power of rest. Then we must learn to let go of our nerves and our muscles, to leave everything in our bodies open and passive so that our circulation can have its own best way. But we must have had some activity in order to have given our circulation a fair start before we can expect it to do its best when we are passive.