Many of us know what stress is, or at least use the term frequently and almost always in its negative sense. Many of us know that it consists in a series of adaptive modifications imposed by demands, or ‘stressors’. The first stumbling-block is the distinction between physiological or pathological stress, in that the threshold between and the definition of physiological and pathological stress are ultimately determined by external situations and somehow ‘digested’ internally. Not without damage in both instances. I recall here the old Chinese curse which I have quoted elsewhere (‘May you live in interesting times’). Since adaptation is geared to the solution of a problem (and I have no intention of making a list), it assumes there is some disturbance of integrity, if not always a threat. Adjustments to stress involve modifications of which those imposed on the immune system are the most important in the global biological network of information. I believe, I have said elsewhere, that biology does not spend willingly and that bills must always be paid, usually later and without awareness of the relations of cause and effect because of the distance in time, and because concealed by a long process of ‘adaptation’. I will explain. Following the initial dramatic impact of bombing during the last war (I was living in Fiume, now Rijeka), people apparently considered it normal to go to the air-raid shelters two or three times a day, for years. The same mechanism can be applied to a food we are intolerant of. The initial disturbances are followed by a neutral period, and the person benefits from the proscribed food and seeks it, due to the constant increase of adrenocortical, or alarm hormones, which are notorious for lifting the mood and increasing vitality. In other words, the disturbance disappears but the hormones remain. This latter example is valid for caffeine addicts but not for people who are being bombed, who never go looking for the bombs themselves.
Put simply, the fact is that the hypothalamus-hypophysis-adrenal glands axis (as well as the sympathetic nervous system with adrenaline and noradrenaline) sooner or later, in both cases, wear out.
Anglo Saxon terminology emphasises the concept of ‘stamina’ (tension). We, on the other hand, attribute a desirable quality to the term adrenaline, and there is no need for me to go into the question of juvenile excesses. Fictitious effort that fills the void of underlying depression, which is destined to get worse, because what stimulates later depresses. As a Reikian psychoanalyst, I believe that people who register no obvious alteration in situations of considerable stress (even in dangerous jobs) have effectively reacted by severing their contact with reality. In other words, they have ‘glassed over’.
Among the many stress tests available, I particularly appreciate the one I have reproduced below, courtesy of Dr Tim Lowenstein of the Conscious Foundation: the Stress Test. This test indicates the levels of pressure you are subjected to in your life. With this you can seriously predict the likelihood of developing physical sickness, even serious disease, during the year following the test. Answer by marking each relevant change. The period in question is the two years prior to taking the test. Add up the total. If a statement is present in more than one question, the points will be repeated accordingly. Example: if you have moved twice over the past two years, you will have double the points for that question. Then we can discuss the results.
lOO DEATH OF YOUR PARTNER
65 SEPARATION FROM YOUR SPOUSE OR PARTNER
63 DEATH OF A CLOSE RELATIVE
53 PERSONAL WOUNDS OR DISEASES
47 WORK-RELATED BURN-OUT
45 MARITAL RECONCILIATION
44 CHANGE IN THE STATE OF HEALTH OF A RELATIVE
39 SEXUAL PROBLEMS
39 FAMILY GROWTH
38 REORGANISATION OF ONE’S AFFAIRS
37 CHANGE IN ONE’S FINANCIAL CONDITIONS
36 DEATH OF A CLOSE FRIEND
35 CHANGE IN THE LINE OF WORK
35 CHANGE IN THE NUMBER OF FAMILY FIGHTS
31 MORTGAGE OR LOAN IN EXCESS OF 25,OOO EURO
30 END OF MORTGAGE OR LOAN
29 CHANGE IN RESPONSIBILITY AT WORK
29 LEGAL PROBLEMS
28 IMPORTANT PERSONAL ACHIEVEMENTS
26 YOUR WIFE STARTS OR STOPS WORKING
26 SCHOOL STARTS OR FINISHES
25 LIFESTYLE CHANGE
24 REVIEW OF PERSONAL HABITS
23 DIFFICULTIES WITH THE BOSSES
20 CHANGE IN WORK CONDITIONS
20 CHANGE OF RESIDENCE
20 CHANGE OF SCHOOL
19 CHANGE IN RECREATIONAL HABITS
19 CHANGE IN CHURCH ACTIVITIES
18 CHANGE IN SOCIAL ACTIVITIES
17 MORTGAGE OR LOAN BELOW 25,OOO EURO
16 CHANGES IN SLEEPING PATTERNS
15 CHANGES IN FAMILY REUNIONS
15 CHANGES IN FEEDING HABITS
12 CHRISTMAS PERIOD
0-149 = low probability of developing stress-related disease
150– 299 = average probability of developing stress-related disease
300 and above = high probability of developing stress-related disease
In the latter case, there could be serious illness in the coming year. My advice would therefore be to avoid any volontary change over the next year, and perhaps to contact a doctor. ——— Translated and compiled by Dr. Glauco Smadelli.
Permission to use and publish this test was given to Dr. Smadelli by the Conscious Living Foundation in the person of Dr. Tim Lowenstein.
Note: it is interesting to observe, and I agree entirely, that there are no changes (or adaptations) that are desirable or damaging. They all cost the same.
I understand the view of those who coined the scholarly term ‘eustress’, meaning ‘good tension’, combining the Greek and the English, but it is oddly reminiscent of the Boy Scouts term ‘tired but happy’, where ‘but’ stands for ‘nevertheless’. When I was small, but not so small, this motto was as incomprehensible to me as the Carabineri’s frangar non flectar (I break but I don’t bend), which became flectar non frangar (I bend but I don’t break) when I read it on my socks. In those days, however, I had only a vague grasp of Latin. Later in life, I reflected that I was perhaps not particularly well-versed, etymologically speaking, with regard to the term ‘*felice‘ (happy). But after my twentieth year, I began to smile at how I, an ordinary man, and therefore also the wise, were capable of employing our cunning to mask our contradictions. Thus, by lovingly safeguarding the unhappiness-survival binomial, nothing was saved from incongruence, on the contrary; things in fact acquired a touch of mercantile teleology and inevitability. It was, therefore, and still is, a pandemic, and I, who am most certainly not vaccinated, am evidently seeking the path of self-diagnosis. We say first the diagnosis, then the therapy, but the truth will out long before the diagnosis. Hence, skipping a few intermediary steps, we get to the desire-habit dichotomy.
On the one hand, desire as the motor of the world. Desire is not, or should not be, the failure to accept the facts, humanity’s great source of frustration, nor should it seek to stop things happening (it would seem impossible, but we try every day). Desire tends towards unity, but unity would put an end to desire and would thus extinguish the motor: We would no longer need it. Or at least, that is what one hears sometimes. I must confess, seen from inside my amusing imperfection, a motor that is not running appears to me to be a melancholy paradise, a bit like a completely aseptic operating theatre on a day without patients. But then it can be said that this implies subscribing to eustress. This may be partly true, because the difficulty lies in fully comprehending, rather than understanding rationally, just how ephemeral the term is and that the word ‘acceptance’ is often synonymous with forbearance and usually in the service of effort and false spiritualism, the religion of forgiveness or the subculture of money, power, success, protagonism and bigotry. There is a huge difference between the pleasure of being recognised and media suicide. Or so it seems to me.
That said, there is a problem with the Veda statement, pronounced thousands of years ago, according to which life’s four objectives are wealth, rectitude, pleasure, and enlightenment (and they are never separate). Either we think that the Veda were the wise cartoons of their time, which have survived to this day, or we admit that they are a masterpiece of balance which offer some comfort with regard to the absence of desire and put the high and the low back where they belong. In spite of Hermes Trismegistus, the Great Hotel Porter, but without the sly look of those we know.
One question is raised: why unity? What unity, if it is even beyond our imagination? We cannot even discuss it, because we are perforce bipolar. How can we move towards an objective that is not first known? If we look carefully, we have glimpsed it in a sunset, a dawn or by means of some rare expedient. I am not referring to the love for a person, since it is an exclusive alteration which only partly has true extension. In this specific case, we might imagine that love can expand to include the whole universe, and then we would have half an idea of what unity is, without mistaking doing with being. Therefore, I can imagine that in life we need sunsets, dawns and to imagine love in that way.
But here starts the second part, on habit, which is the black sheep of the family. It is far more powerful than its brother desire and its sister, dissatisfaction. You will have wondered why the projects of people who win some television quiz invariably include travel. One might say that the instinct to explore is primary, along with survival and the survival of the species. Without wishing to contest that, it is my view that by travelling, humankind seeks to escape habit. Without knowing it, by killing desire with habit, man creates a line of stability which is horizontal, flat, where he is no longer able to feel wonder, like children, who are not yet used to the world. With travel, he tries to stir up the surface of a cold soup; something that is extremely depressing when seen the following day in the kitchen, in the aftermath. Travel ignites the flame, but I have already shot my bolt on desire.
Is habit therefore a cold soup? Yes, but it is also true that if the planet lost its habits the Universe would cease to exist. Habit and its rituals guarantee the longevity of man. No upsets. The adrenal glands are not called upon to increase the alarm hormones in order to adapt to change; fewer free radicals, more health. Who lives longer, a doctor in the middle of Milan, or a mountaineer in Val di Fassa? The answer is straightforward, but it would have take into account ‘how’ life is lived more than ‘how long’. Manhattan does not proliferate with Methuselahs, although the process of adapting to the destruction of the Twin Towers might be viewed as an attempt to abolish that vertical arrogance that fails to take into account the idea that ‘Wherefore let he that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall’ (Paul, 1 Cor 10,12). Hence the clumsy attempt to zero the line towards a horizontal stability. But both the banishment of desire in the Unity (which we do not know) and habit (which we know well – but it is renuciation) communicate a degree of melancholy.
But this brings us full circle, back to the defence of the much maligned ‘eustress’, the ‘tired by happy’, which generates melancholy. Perhaps, but I would strike out the ‘eu’ and the ‘happy’, with the vague and imprecise insight that in certain sunsets, dawns and loves there can be no stress or tiredness. Ultimately, only us.
Nana-nu-ira 13 August 2002