How to curb your tensions
Talk them out of your system, advises this noted psychiatrist. Don't be shy about shouting for help. And he offers a mine-point system for testing your own tensions
BY DR. GEORGE S. STEVENSON Harry Milt
WHEN YOU GET into a stew about something, do you go off by yourself and brood? Most tense people do. Instead of bringing their worries and gripes out in the open, they keep them bottled up, and when they do, strange things begin to happen. Little worries become magnified into giant disasters. Ordinary “blue" feelings deepen into moods of purple melancholy. Destructive emotions like fear and anger take over making it impossible to shake the mood.
If you are faced with this situation, the first thing you must realize is that tension is really a build-up for action, and only through action will you be able to relieve it.
But before taking action, you must take stock to find out how tense you are.
Pure tension, that is, the feeling of being keyed up and taut as a bow string, is hardly ever experienced by itself. It is almost always felt as part of an over-all emotional upset. You may say: "I feel tense," but if you were to look into that feeling a little more closely, you would find that you really mean: “I feel unhappy, miserable, blue, worried, touchy, irritable and tense," or some similar combination of upsetting emotions, and tension. Therefore, a practical examination of your tensions should cover the different types of emotional upsets of which tension is an important part. In the following list — in the form of questions — are nine of the most common types of emotional upset in which tensions are involved.
Read each of these questions, together with the accompanying explanation. After you finish reading each one, ask yourself these questions: Does this apply to me? If it does, then does it happen frequently? When it happens, is it very severe? Does it last for a long time? You must be honest with yourself, since the purpose of these questions is to help you understand the part tension plays in your life.
Do you worry a great deal of the time? (Stop reading and think about the question.)
Everybody worries, because everybody’s got something to worry about. Worry itself is troublesome enough, but some people cause themselves additional woe by worrying about being worried.
The question to ask yourself is: are you worrying a great deal without any apparent cause? Do you start expecting trouble before trouble even shows up? Do you tend to make things look blacker than they really are? Arc you touchy, jittery, nervous? Do you have that “Monday morning feeling" every morning of the week, or even during the afternoon and evening?
Are you, as a rule, edgy, irritable and easily upset? (Stop reading and think about the question.)
Do you grumble and scold when things aren't done exactly the way you want them? Do you fly off the handle easily? Do minor problems throw you into a dither and do minor disappointments crush you?
Do the ordinary pleasures of life fail to satisfy you? (Stop reading and think about the question.)
How many people are there today who enjoy the simple, ordinary pleasures of life — the excitement of a walk through the park, the beauty of the moon, the taste of a favorite dish or the joy of watching children at play?
Do you get a kick out of life’s simple pleasures, or are you always on the run, hunting the new, the unusual, the “exciting” and thrilling — and getting no real, basic pleasure out of it when you find it?
Do you fear new situations and new people? (Stop reading and think about the question.)
We all tend to fear the new and unknown. But some people have these fears beyond reason. Do people have to make an extra show of friendliness and interest before you’re convinced they’re not going to “eat you up"? Do new assignments on the job frighten you? Does the thought of changing the furniture and
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“Do you mistrust most people? Do you look for double meanings in things they say to you?”
decorations in your home cause you anxiety and tension?
Do you have difficulty in getting along with other people? (Stop reading and think about the question.)
Some people have a wonderful knack
for getting along with others, but there are those who seem to have a special knack for not getting along. It isn’t because they don’t want to. No matter how hard they try, they just don’t seem to be able to click. Do you find yourself blow-
ing hot and cold with people, loving them one day and hating them the next, praising them one day and tearing them apart the next? Do you find it a problem getting across to others what you really think and the way that you really feel?
And this brings us to the next question:
Are you suspicious and mistrustful of others? (Stop reading and think about the question.)
Do you feel that by and large, people are a miserable lot who can’t be trusted, and from whom you can expect nothing decent or good? Do you look for double meanings in things people say to you?
Do you suffer from feelings of inferiority, inadequacy, and self doubt? (Stop reading and think about the question.)
Do you have a calm, sure feeling about yourself and your abilities, or do you find it necessary to convince yourself and others? Do you take yourself for granted, or do you indulge in a great deal of selfexamination and self-criticism? Do you just assume other people are going to like you, or do you feel you have to work hard to make a good impression? Do you underrate yourself? Do you doubt your own knowledge and the wisdom of your opinion? Do you find yourself, often, on the outskirts of groups, hoping to be invited in and fearful that you won’t be?
Do you carry a chip on your shoulder?
(Stop reading and think about the question.)
Do you find yourself getting into arguments and quarrels often? Do you have the feeling that people are picking on you and that you’d like to hit back and get even? Do you get angry about trivial slights and oversights and berate the “offending” party? Very often, there is a strong element of self-punishment (masochism) in this kind of an attitude.
A young man was sent to his firm’s psychiatric counselor after a long series of quarrels and violent arguments with almost everyone else in his office. The counselor learned that when the young man was thirteen, his mother died and his father remarried. He harbored a feeling of hatred for his stepmother because she had replaced his mother. He also felt bitter toward his father, because of his father’s "disloyalty” in remarrying. He had been trained that it was wrong to feel anger and hate. And so, when he experienced these feelings toward his father and stepmother, he felt he was being sinful and wicked. He couldn’t give up these feelings, because he honestly felt them. On the other hand, he couldn’t tolerate these feelings, because they conflicted with his conscience. The result of this conflict was anxiety and tension, which could only be relieved by punishment. And so he went about provoking it.
Do you get moody or depressed without knowing why? (Stop reading and think about the question.)
There come periods in your life when you feel just plain miserable and “down in the dumps.” You can't put your finger on what’s causing the trouble, and you don’t very much care, either. Life looks black and you feel blue. You go through the routine of what you have to do without ambition, interest or zest. Sometimes you don’t even go through the motions, but let everything just “go hang.” The last thing you want is company.
Moods of this kind are apt to come on when you’ve been through a wearing illness, heard distressing news, or suffered a serious loss. But it may take hardly anything at all to set you off .— like having a free day or weekend ahead of you,
with nothing planned and nowhere to go. Do you recognize these feelings? Have they been happening to you?
Having answered all these questions, you should now have an idea whether your tensions are slight or severe. If your answer is yes to only a few' of these questions, or even if it is yes to most of the questions, but w'ith the qualification that this happens only occasionally, and it is seldom very intense, then it is very likely that yours is only a moderate case of tension. In that event you can probably help yourself find relief.
However, if your answ'er is yes to most of these questions, with the additional qualification that this happens often and with intensity and lasts a long time, then it is likely that yours is more than an ordinary case of tension. If that is so, then you may want to consider some other form of action, possibly even consult a psychiatrist.
Once you have evaluated the extent of your tension, the best thing to do is to talk out your troubles with somebody else. It doesn’t matter how absurd you consider your fears or w'orries to be. The important thing is to get them out into the open.
But talking it out does not mean blurting it out to anybody at all. You should make a careful choice of the person in whom you plan to confide. Who this person should be and w'hat qualities he should have will be discussed later on. First let us find out what talking it out does for you:
Talking it out helps you share your misery. For all its triteness, the old expression "misery loves company" has great truth in it. We are not gods or supermen, and no one expects us to stand alone. We are ordinary mortals with limited powers who must depend on each other to survive. And w'e should realize there is a magic to the warmth of human sympathy and understanding that sometimes surpasses even the pow'er of modern medicine.
One day a young man about nineteen years of age was brought into a hospital suffering from a severe asthmatic condition. He could barely breath and emergency measures had to be taken. After a day or tw'o the condition improved somewhat, but for days after that, there was no gain at all.
Then, one day his doctor noticed a slight change for the better, and from that day on there was a very rapid recovery. Within a week, the boy w'as out of bed, marching around the ward and making plans to go home.
The doctor found it impossible to explain the sudden recovery until one day when he noticed the boy was sitting by the bed next to his own and talking to its occupant, a woman about fifty years of age. This interested the doctor, so he eavesdropped. The boy was talking with intense feeling about his deceased parents. His confidante listened, and nodded and said nothing. But her face just poured out sympathy, warmth and interest.
Later the doctor looked at the woman’s chart. The date of admission was the same day on which the boy’s remarkable recovery began.
Some people have the idea that seeking help and emotional support from others is a sign of weakness. Actually, the person who insists on w'orking things out by himself without ever leaning on others is usually a person who needs to show others how strong he is in order to hide a feeling of inadequacy and helplessness.
If you should happen to be such a person, make it a point to seek out some
trusted person and talk out your troubles and worries. Not just once, but right along from here on in. You’ll find people much less malicious than you may think they are. Be warned, however, that doing this is not going to be easy. You will probably find yourself directing your habitual anger or mistrust against the very person you've come to for help. It is very important, therefore, that the person you seek out be a mature person—one who'll understand that the hostile feelings you may express are not really directed against him.
Talking it out helps you to see things as they really are. Tensions interfere with your normal sensations and thoughts and. twist them all out of shape. They make you see things not as they really are, but as you imagine them or fear them to be. Therein lies the value of a sympathetic listener. The person with whom you talk it out shouldn't be expected to tell you what to do, but only help you to arrive at your own decisions. To a very great extent your confidante will serve as a sounding board against w'hich you will test out your ideas. In addition he will
give you moral support to help you through your confusion.
Talking it out helps to release pent-up emotion. The best way to handle supercharged emotions is to release them in safety. This is just what happens when you talk it out in the presence of an understanding person.
Suppose you've been having trouble with your supervisor. First it is one thing and then another. He asks you to do a job a certain way. You know' it’s the wrong way and you tell him so. But he’s
the boss and he wants it done the way he wants it done. So you do it his way. When you bring the job to him for inspection. he blows a fuse and asks how could you possibly have been so stupid as not see it wouldn't work.
By that time you’re wild with anger and just about ready to haul off at him or to walk out on the job. You can’t do either. You can’t strike back and you can’t run. You’re trapped. Something has got to give, and so you probably let out your anger by barking at your family.
But suppose you decide instead to talk
out your problem with a good friend. The minute you start talking about your supervisor your anger and hate boil up and out — out of your system where they’ve been doing a lot of damage, and out into the air where they can do no harm to anyone.
Talking it out clears your mind for sensible action. One way to get rid of tension is to deal with the problem causing it. But how can you deal with anything when your mind is in a state of confusion? Talking it out helps clear your
mind of confusion so you can concentrate on solving the problem.
One college boy learned this the hard way. When he was in his junior year in college, his father died. No provision had been made for his tuition and he was really in a spot. A scholarship was out of the question because he was only an average student. The shock of losing his father, combined with a very powerful urge to become an engineer had a terribly upsetting effect. He began to brood and to withdraw from contact with his friends. He couldn’t concentrate on his
classwork or assignments. He failed two of his five exams. This capped his despair and he felt there was only one thing to do — to flee. He took off and started hitch-hiking his way out of town.
He didn't get very far. The first driver he flagged happened to be a professor who knew about his case. This professor got him into the car and headed back to the college counselor’s office. After some resistance the boy broke down and talked and wept. As soon as he got some relief from his crushing emotions, he began to realize his situation was not hopeless. The student employment bureau could get him a part-time summer job on the campus, so he could earn some money while repeating the courses he had failed. In the fall he could work in the college cafeteria and earn enough for room and board. An alumni-supported loan fund could cover his tuition. He could solve his problem without running away, and he did. All these aids were there for him to use all the time, but he couldn't see them because of his emotional confusion.
This boy had to be dragged to a counselor.' He wouldn’t go by himself, possibly because he had lost initiative. Possibly because he just didn't know how to go to a fellow human being and say: “Look, I’m in trouble. Please listen to me. I need help.
If you, too, have a desire to talk out your worries but don’t know where or how to begin, remember: it requires just one simple act — find someone you trust and respect and ask him to listen to what’s troubling you.
When you have made up your mind to talk it out with someone, the next step is to decide who this person should be.
You should choose someone whom you respect and who respects you. He should be a person of maturity and judgment who will listen with sympathy and understanding and keep your conversation confidential. Preferably, he should have some experience in dealing with other peoples’ problems.
A good choice would be your minister, priest, or rabbi. You could hardly find anyone with greater sympathy and human understanding. Also, there are few people who in the course of their daily duties gain as much experience as clergymen in helping people work out their emotional and practical problems.
Another man you could talk to in time of stress is your family doctor, who probably heals as many broken spirits as he does broken bones. Most family doctors practice an informal kind of psychotherapy without having had any special psychiatric training or knowing the technical rules “according to Freud.”
There are also others you can turn to. The high school or college student can seek out his guidance counselor, a sympathetic instructor, a principal or dean. In the factory or office, an old-timer, supervisor, foreman or co-worker, will be willing to lend a sympathetic ear. In many large industrial plants or commercial concerns, there are counselors in the personnel department or medical department whose business it is to listen to an employee’s problems, and to help with advice. Many trade unions have counselors for this purpose, too. And then there are always good friends.
As busy as people are today, and as absorbed as they are in their own problems, there is always someone who is willing to listen and to help you with your troubles. ★
This is an excerpt from Master Your Tensions and Start Living Again, to be published later this summer by PrenticeHall. ® 1959 by Prentice-Hall, Inc.