PSYCHOLOGICAL STRESS is generally written about as if it were a modern analogue of the anopheles mosquito, something breeding in the backwater swamps of our technological civilization. The prevailing view is that "it" is out there, threatening our lives, just as malaria, diptheria and polio once did.
The growing awareness of stress and its links to serious disease, combined with a pervasive conviction that stress "victimizes" us, has had increasing social and political consequences. One of the more dramatic examples was last year's air traffic controllers' strike, when more than 13,000 people walked off their jobs. One of the issues in the strike was the matter of stress. The controllers believed that their jobs were inherently stressful, and this stress was threatening their chances of living a full, healthy life. Few had suffered the ultimate consequences of "stress," but a series of federally funded medical studies had linked their occupation to increases in blood pressure, and hence the threat of hypertension.
Even though stress is taken very seriously, it is still a difficult term to define. In the public mind, stress is caused externally, but in fact, most adult "stress," the kind that leads to serious consequences, has to do with interpersonal relationships, particularly those during childhood. In other words, we are not so much "victims" of stress, as victims of our own personalities and conflicts.
Not surprisingly, interest in stress has led to an ever rising tide of books about it and what can be done to control it. A few of the recent additions to "stress" literature demonstrate not only that these books vary enormously in quality but, alas, that they usually fail to examine the complexities of stress and its causes.
Managing Job Stress and Health by Michael T. Matteson and John M. Ivancevich (Free Press, $14.95) has useful information for those unfamiliar with stress literature. Here one can find a description of the Type A character, the physiology of stress, as well as a discussion of various ways one can attempt to alleviate stress: biofeedback, meditation, muscle relaxation.
Yet the authors never really define their terms. Instead, they present a tautology: stress is "the physiological or psychological response you make to an external event or condition called a stressor." They portray stress as a force that victimizes people, but leave totally unexamined the role of early childhood experiences as a major source of stress problems in adult life.
Beyond that, the book attempts to make itself relevant to everyone. The dust jacket tells us that the book is "for everyone who works, not only high level executives, but everyone who has to deal with the pressures of impossible deadlines, unreasonable bosses, sudden changes and stalled careers." That seems to include just about everyone who has ever felt victimized. What is not at all clear, at least from a scientific perspective, is whether the remedies offered will be useful to everyone who has felt like a victim.
The Quieting Reflex: A Six Second Technique for Coping with Stress Anytime, Anywhere by Charles F. Stroebel (Putnam, $12.95) also attempts to appeal to everyone, anytime, and anywhere. Stroebel says that the Quieting Reflex, or Q.R., can be used by any of "ten million American depenent on medications," as well as any one of the "95 million Americans experiencing one or more [stress] symptoms, and, as such, a potential candidate for overuse of medicines such as minor tranquilizers, antacid suspensions or pills, painkillers, sleeping pills, cold remedies, laxatives, or alcohol or alcohol base syrups." I suppose the old medicine man who rolled into town in his wagon would have drooled at the sheer creativity of that sales pitch.
Stroebel, however, does have something important to say. He emphasizes the importance of relaxed breathing, and regular exercises in deep breathing, as means of modifying a variety of psychosomatic and psychological disturbances. And he offers specific instructions. The Q.R. appears to draw heavily on the techniques of biofeedback, meditation, hypnotic induction and yoga. It is difficult to argue with Stroebel's attempt to provide people with an alternative to the variety of drugs currently used to control anxiety, and psychophysical disturbances. Yet, like the never-ending series of best-selling books on weight control The Quieting Reflex suffers from overreach. It is a book ostensibly written for 105 million Americans. While no doubt the Q.R. might work for many of them, one senses the Q.R. is like the information presented in diet books -- a lot easier to read than to put into practice. No doubt more relaxed and physiologically healthy individuals will find these exercises relatively easy to implement. The problem arises with those who are exhibiting psychophysiological or stress-related disorders. Some of these individuals find it difficult even to begin any type of Quieting Response, just as an obese person finds it difficult to eat properly.
A pleasant surprise awaits those who read J. Ingram Walker's Everybody's Guide to Emotional Well-Being: Helping Yourself Get Help (Harbor, paperback, $9.95). This book is clear, well-written, refreshingly short on simplistic prescriptive, do-it-yourself advice, and long on information about where, when, why and how to seek help for a variety of emotional problems. Walker presents a clear overview of emotional disorders, describing problems as varied as anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, psychosomatic illness, alcohol abuse, sexual problems and child abuse. It is not only an excellent guide to seeking help, but a perfect place to begin sorting through the maze of psychiatric and psychological terms and concepts.
Mary Susan Miller's Child Stress: Understanding and Answering Stress Signals of Infants, Children and Teenagers (Doubleday, $14.95) describes clearly -- for parents, teachers, indeed all adults -- the variety of symptoms children exhibit under psychological stress. Written in a warm and compassionate style, the book should convince adults to pause and pay attention.
Every psychiatrist and clinical psychologist recognizes that adult behavior toward children is frequently rooted in unconscious destructive impulses. While Miller does not provide glib answers for this psychodynamic problem, she nevertheless suggests a first step toward raising healthier children. In an era when children are experiencing stress from a many sources, she pleads with parents, teachers and other adults to listen to their cries for help. Her book is a valuable guide that should enable adults to listen better.
If we can survive the stress of childhood, adolescence and early adulthood Susanna Kubelka tells us things are bound to get better. Her book, Over Forty at Last: How to Ignore the 'Mid-Life Crisis' and Make the Most Out of the Best Years of Your Life (Macmillan, $12.95), is a very personal prescription. Chapter headings include: "The Right Kind of Beauty Will Last Forever"; "My Own Sexual Development"; "In Praise of Mature Motherhood"; "The Young Mistress -- Not To Be Feared, But Pitied" and so forth. Not exactly the type of stressors that worried the air traffic controllers.
This book makes no claims to scientific accuracy and its generalizations are so simplistic that they're entertaining. For instance we are told that unlike Americans, Europeans "enjoy visiting their parents. They do not do it out of duty." The author then goes on to assert, "I know many people who go yachting or skiing with their parents." That clearly is un-American. Elsewhere we learn that the real problem with mistresses is that "no man on earth is happy about handing out household money. And his dislike grows proportionately when, instead of one, suddenly two women are holding out their hands." Hard to argue with that logic.
Elsewhere we learn why the book was a best seller in Germany, where it was first published. Susanna Kubelka has little that is nice to say about German men. Whether its their language, food or sexual sensitivity -- it all seems to be bad. "The Germans, in my opinion, are lousy lovers," she asserts, giving no indication of her scientific data base.
Over Forty at Last is light reading that will amuse, and occasionally inform, the reader about the glories of mellowing or muddling through female mid-life.
Finally there is It All Adds Up: A Health Handbook for Executives and Professionals by Robert M. Warshawsky, Andrea Tiktin and Dr. James Engle (Prentice-Hall, $9.95; paperback, $4.95). This book focuses on the interplay of diet, stress and susceptibility to stress-induced diseases. It emphasizes the relation of sugar intake, sugar utilization by the body, caffeine and alcohol consumption. The authors make an extremely good case for controlling, and sharply reducing, intake of sugar, caffeine, alcohol and cigarettes. Where it sticks close to medical fact, it is both informative and clear. Yet regrettably the book takes on an evangelistic tone and in the end sees sugar, alcohol, caffeine and cigarettes as the root of all life's woes.
The authors assert, "As people gained relief from the stress of sugar and caffeine there would be a national period of relaxation. Tensions would be eased among family members reversing the rising divorce rate and re-establishing the family as the dominant force in American life. . . . Drug addiction would be eliminated since the need to escape from reality would not exist; everyone would be on a continuous natural high. Creativity would increase. . . unprecedented advances would be made in science. . . the crime rate would plummet. . . murder would decline sharply... hostilities toward other countries would gradually melt away, and the prospect of lasting peace would be upon us."
Who knows -- if the CIA would only destroy Fidel Castro's sugar crop, the Germans might yet learn to be better lovers, and the air traffic controllers would live happily ever after.
One thing about the current corp of books about stress, it's lively and entertaining, and sometimes, if you exercise discretion, even informative