Washington could easily be called "The City of Stress." Everybody seems to have too many meetings to attend, to many reports to complete, too many decisions to make and just too many things in general to keep up with. It keeps the flood of adrenalin - the biological indiction of stress - charging through the veins.
So it isn't surprising that 1,200 people - many of them doctors and nurses - spent the weekend at a two-day "Stress Without Distress" workshop at the Shoreham-Americana Hotel. The surprise was in the variety of methods demonstrated and advocated.
There were workshops on using biofeedback acupresure and biological harmonics, all to keep down the demon of stress found in the modern world. And there were less exotically-named methods, too - like the natural sounds touted by lecturer who noted that some Mexican hospitals are built around aviaries, because the songs of birds are thought to help patients recover more quickly.
If it sometimes sounded like echoes of the 1960s counter-culture perhaps that was part of the message.
"We often forget, in our very ultra-scientific ways, that while Western medicine was developing there were similar medical developments in other parts of the world," said Dr. Keith Sehnert, a visiting professor at Georgetown University's School of Nursing. Sehnert said he attended the conference because he was "fascinated" with biofeedback (in which a machine provides the user information about his own immediate emotional state) and acupressure (a Chinese medical procedure similar to acupuncture, but without needles) for stress reduction.
"We've been told the way to reduce stress is with pills," said Sehnert, "but they have side-effects for some people. It's been mind-expanding to see other methods of stress-reduction."
That was exactly the aim of the conference, according to Dr. Effie Poy Yew Chow, head of the San Francisco-based East West Academy of Healing Arts that sponsored the workshops.
Chow, who demonstrated acupressure and acumassage, was quick to point out, however, that her organization did not recommend doing away with Western medical practices.
"I think that holistic health, in which the individual is encouraged to take charge of his or her own health care and health maintenance, should be integrated into Western medicine," she said, adding that medical practices from other cultures need, at the same time, to be studied and scientifically validated.
"With today's cost of medical care, I think we have to move in that direction."
After listening to Jeanne Achterberg, author of "Stres, Psychological Facts and Cancer" and an assistant profesor at the University of Texas Health Science Center, talk about imagery in cancer treatment, however, several members of the audience expressed skepticism about the methods.
Achterberg had samples of cancer patients' draings of how they viewed their bodies combating the disease. She said in cases where the patients' imagery showed their bodies successfully warding of the cancer, there had been a reduction in pain, and in some cases, a remission of the disease.
Said James Hudson from the American Association of Medical Colleges: "I'd like to see more documentation and scientifically validated studies, but there seems to be something in her findings."
Even if they weren't entirely convinced, many in Dr. John Diamond's kinesilogy workshop were impressed by his demonstration of the effects of music and natural and sounds on muscle tension.
In a presentation reminiscent of turn-of-the century traveling medicine shows, Diamond asked a man in the audience to participate in a demonstration. He stretched the man out on a table in front of him and told him to stiffen his arm and resist when Diamond tried to bend it. The subject resisted successfully. After playing the taped sound of running water, Diamond was able to bend the still-resisting arm.
"There's nothing magical, nothing mystical about his," he maintained with a flourish. "These sounds, or a musical note, weaken the muscles, showing this method to be a way of reducing stress. Why else, when we're tried and under stress, do we go to the seashore where we can hear the sound of waves, or to some green place by a pool of water. Why do we feel more relaxes afterwards? Just set up a test and you can prove the hypothesis that these methods work."
Certainly his session, and the other workshops, made some in the audience think about the options. Said Michele Powers, a nurse at George Washington Hospital: "These kinds of methods are becoming more and more talked about.
"Working with patients, you have to do more than read the textbook and follow the doctor's orders. You need the patient's emotional backup and feeling that he or she can do something to control their progress."
"This is an exciting area to discover," said Dr. Norman Tamarkin, a Washington psychiatrist. "What I've seen here doesn't exclude traditional medicine, but the whole medical area is interlocking. The more advanced technology becomes, the more we learn that there's more to sickness and health than taking pills. There's the whole psychological, social, spiritual and physical being to be taken into account."
This was the focus of Ruth Carter Stapleton's lecture. President Carter's sister captivated a full house with her talk on the individuals's ability to heal by mobilizing the body's powers through a combination of mind, body and spirit strength. There was a rush of audience members towards her after she concluded her talk.
As at any of the new self-help conferences, there were the inevitable books by authors which could be purchased. Surprisingly, the man whose book had given the conference its title, Dr. Hans Selye, had little to say about the new methods.
Selye pioneered the concept of stress back in 1936 with a paper bearing the weighty title "A Syndrome Produced by Various Noxious Agents." He merely told one admirer yesterday that the stress pills - a combination of various vitamins - currently being sold commercially were "useless. One just has to relax more. That is all."