We've talked a lot about how establishment medicine is moving to transfer basic responsibility for health from doctor to patient these days, and you've heard even more about how psychological and environmental factors can determine the state of your physical being.
The word "stress has essentially taken on as its paramount meaning that which was given it some years ago by Dr. Hans Selye: outside pressures that produce inappropriate physiological responses. (The Founder of the International Institute on Stress has himself attempted to modify that meaning in the past few years, by separating the concept into stress -- that is, destructive stress, and "eustress," good stress, but practically nobody remembers anymore that it was his word to begin with . . .
Moreover, there always have been people inexplicably resistant to various ills or who inexplicably recover from things that prove fatal or nearly so to the next one. These events have been attributed to many things: miraculous intervention, faith healing, the "will to live," the placebo effect, among others.
Using these correlative concepts -- the need for the individual to keep himself or herself healthy, evidence that one can do so and the now general agreement that undue stress can provoke inappropriate physiological changes -- virtually every field of medicine, para-medicine, holistic medicine, quasi-medicine and religio-medicine has adopted some form of stress control, and/or anti-stress relaxation techniques -- or at least the jargon -- as its own.
Two recent books approach this most popular of current subjects with enough originality to warrant singling out. Neither , of course, offers the ultimate answer, but they can serve to indicate a direction.
"Bio types," by Joan Arehart-Treichel (Times Books, $12.95).
Joan Treichel is a medical writer and medical editor of Science News magazine. She has put together a well-researched and medically reviewed volume on the personality traits which portend a predisposition to various illnesses: cancer, heart, gastrointestinal, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, headache, mental disorder. She also offers some strategies for what she calls "biotype modification," but the book is stronger when it is viewed as an easy-to-read compendium of current research in the personality-to-illness area.
New research is taking the concept of psychosomatic illnesses a step beyond the it's-all-in-your-mind school, but it is easier to accept the "disease-prone" personality than it is to specify what disease is likely to occur when there are few genetic guidelines.
Most disease-prone biotypes, she writes tend to be people who have suffered great loss or hardship as children and have been made to feel helpless and hopeless -- but who have repressed these emotions. These feelings may be reactivated later in life producing illness -- which one, some research seems to be able to predict.
Treichel admits the premise is controversial and not provable in traditional ways. She writes, for example, "whereas investigators can inject a cancer virus or chemical carcinogen into a rat and show that it gets cancer as a result they can't shoot thought emotions or behavior into a rat and show that it also triggers cancer."
Her book is provocative and does not stray too far from areas of current medical and scientific speculation.
"Total relaxation" by Frederick P. Lenz ($10.95, Bobbs-Merrill) is another animal altogether. Lenz is, he will tell you, a student of eastern meditation techniques. He scoffs openly at the popular versions such as TM or Dr. Herbert Benson's non-spiritual version of TM.
"They are not for relaxation," he says of the eastern techniques, an unmistakable note of condescension creeping into his tone, "but for attaining altered states of consciousness, which is a lifetime committement."
His book promises to change your life if you take it seriously as, indeed most so-called holistic programs can do if they are followed scrupulously.
Where Lenz is most useful is in his handy list of some common-sense stress reducers you might think about.
Take an extra pair of shoes -- one for interviews, the other for walking between interviews.
Don't get into an argument with a passenger (especially one in the back seat, one would suppose.)
On a three-lane highway, don't drive in the far right lane. (Entering and exiting traffic is particularly stressful, he says.)
Avoid loud music, (Listen to Jean Pierre Rampal instead of Genesis, might be an example, or Kenny Loggins instead of Stravinsky, maybe?)
Watch public TV instead of "the same old shows or soap operas."
If you can afford it, hire someone else to do your boring housework. If you can't get your husband, wife, children, friends to help.
Lenz singles out television for particular scorn. It is, he writes, "the single greatest cause of tension and fatigue in the modern home. As you while away your hours in front of it, you are subjecting your consciousness to a continual bombardment of useless stimuli that leaves you feeling tired and unfulfilled at the end of the evening.
"When commercials come on, watch them and observe how they have been constructed to subliminally brainwash you. Analyze them and note the types of false expectations that are being pushed upon you. If you are aware of the process, it will not affect you much."
It's a bit California, but it has its moments.