You know when you are under its influence. You feel backed into a corner, juggling too many balls that repeatedly hit you on the

head. Stress.

If stress seems manageable, we may call it "challenge." But when plot flows faster than our capacity to handle it, we may collapse--like the recently separated mother of four who pounded on the wheel of her car as she drove home from work and sobbed, "I want to have a nervous breakdown!"

Other people--feeling the press of problems--attend anger release workshops, go to transcendental meditation classes, jog or pay $15 at the Rajneesh Center to float weightlessly in a solution of water and 1,100 pounds of Epsom salts.

"It's almost like walking on water," said Swami Prem Deben, the center's director. "People who are under a lot of stress forget what euphoria feels like."

Five years ago, Jena Dorn knew

who she was--a pretty, button-

bright MA from Yale in public

administration, married to a psychiatrist, with every expectation before her.

Then Dorn, who works for the Senate Appropriations Committee, got hit with a major failure: a year and a half ago she and her husband were divorced.

"I used to be very intolerant about people who just couldn't get it together with their ambitions and their goals, before I hit rock bottom myself," she said.

Hitting bottom, a new experience for Dorn, caused her to realize the perils of trying to be complete control, a classic stress-producer.

"I'm big on control," she said, "but I have learned to be more flexible, more capable of receiving things from other people."

The constant intake is itself a source of stress. "Things come at you. You are always reacting. One minute I'm working on the MX missile, the next minute abortion. Sometimes I feel a mile wide and an inch deep. Many of my colleagues on the Hill feel the same way."

Does Dorn have any techniques for relieving stress when it starts to overwhelm her? "Sometimes I take a sick day and 'veg out,' but usually"--Dorn admitted--"when I feel that I'm going too fast, I just switch into a higher gear."

What is often forgotten or overlooked, says psychiatrist Gerald May, is that stress can be addicting.

"People define themselves in different ways," explained May, the new director of spiritual and psychological guidance at Shalem Institute in Washington. "Work is one way. Relationships is another. And stress is a third."

May struck himself hard on his knee a half-dozen times. "When somebody is beating up on themselves, they can say 'This is me.' Through suffering, you know who youare."

May claims that most people avoid finding the time to examine the causes of the stress that overwhelms them. After all, if we took a hard look at our lives, we might have to take action. And most of us (May does not exclude himself from this majority) resist stepping into the unknown.

"We don't really want to be free," said May. "We sniff freedom the way an adolescent sniffs it, nervously. And if we are always too overwhelmed to deal with anything larger than our immediate concerns, we don't have to deal with real freedom at all."

May claims he didn't "discover" a theory as much as he "crawled toward" the practice of two time-honored stress- relieving tools--prayer and meditation --after concluding that the medical textbook answers to psychiatric problems he was wrestling with often did not work.

"They are not the same thing, really. Prayer is more active; meditation less so," he said. But both, May discovered, work, though he qualified that neither is the perfect panacea.

"Everybody's in a bind. The bind is not something to be gotten out of, and certainly the lives of the greatest spiritual leaders grew more stressful as they grew in spiritual dimension themselves. But through prayer and meditation they became aware of a force for good in the universe that they were part of. As a result, they were able to deal with more and more of the ugly things in life without being defeated."

Is this clutching at clouds in order to avoid reality? Just the reverse, said May. "The difficult thing about prayer, meditation or quietness is that it allows things to surface that we would rather not confront. It's a lot more self-important and self-defining to be struggling with pain rather than standing back to discover its source and do something about it."

Drugs and diversions, including the socially acceptable drug of "workaholism," sideswipe stress, without curing it. In fact, the stress-producing problems we don't confront tend to flourish with neglect, while the drugs we use to escape our problems become problems themselves.

People laughed at ex-congressman Wilbur Mills when stress, compounded by alcoholism, landed him in the Tidal Basin with his clothes on. But in various less-public ways, most people have found themselves in some kind of a "Tidal Basin" when they cracked under crisis. At that point, we don't have problems; the problems have us.

May admitted that he is still tempted to avoid solitude when he is in a crisis. "The courage it takes to be quiet in the midst of a stressful situation is immense. But if we don't, that's when we make our biggest mistakes."

In 1977, May wrote a book called "Simply Sane," in which he discussed peace.

"Peace is not something you can force on anything or anyone--much less upon one's own mind. It is like trying to quiet the ocean by pressing upon the waves. Sanity lies in somehow opening to the chaos, allowing anxiety, moving deeply into the tumult, diving deeply in the waves, where underneath, within, peace simply is."

That is where meditation comes in, he explained the other day:

"What meditation or prayer doessis help you to grow less concerned with always seeing things in terms of yourself. Instead of separating you from life, you are reconnected and realigned with the whole of it."