Popular Science Monthly/Volume 20/November 1881/Worry

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WHEN a strong and active mind breaks down suddenly, in the midst of business, it is worn out by worry rather than over-work. Brain-labor may be too severe, or ordinary exercise prolonged until it produces serious exhaustion; but the mere draining of resources, however inexpedient, is not disease, and seldom inflicts permanent injury. A temporary collapse of the mental powers may be caused by excessive or too continuous exertion, just as a surface-well may be emptied by pumping it out more rapidly than it is refilled, but the apparatus is not thereby disorganized, and time will remedy the defect. When rest is not followed by recovery, the recuperative faculty itself, an integral part of the intellectual organism, must be impaired or disabled. This is not unfrequently the case when the possessor of a worried and weakened brain in vain seeks refuge from the supposed effects of "overwork" in simple idleness. Something more than exhaustion has occurred, and rest alone will not cure the evil. The faculty of repair is not in a condition to restore the equilibrium between potential energy and kinetic force. Divers hypotheses have been suggested to explain this state of matters. The mind has been compared to a muscle overstrained by a too violent effort, or paralyzed by excessive exertion. The two phenomena have little similarity, and no new light is thrown on the nature of mental collapse by the comparison. Perhaps a closer parallel might be found in the state which ensues when the tension of a muscular contraction is so high that spasm passes into rigidity, and molecular disorganization ensues. Meanwhile, however interesting these speculations may prove to the physiologist, they bring no relief to the sufferer. It is easy to see that a worse evil than simply using up his strength too rapidly has befallen him, but no one knows precisely what has happened. To cover the enigma, without solving it, "overwork" is taken to mean more than work over the normal, in quantity, quality, and time, but no attempt is made to determine how excess, in either or all of these particulars, can bring about the disability and decrepitude we bewail. It is to the investigation of this mystery that attention needs to be directed. If it should be possible to ascertain why a mind previously healthy, and still apparently intact, breaks down instantly and thoroughly under a strain not exceptionally great, and, collapse having once occurred, recovery follows tardily and is rarely complete, it will probably be within the scope of common-sense to draw some practical conclusions as to the prevention, and it may be the cure, of what is in truth becoming a scourge of mental industry already almost decimating the ranks of the army of progress, in every field of intellectual enterprise at home and abroad.

A certain degree of tension is indispensable to the easy and healthful discharge of mental functions. Like the national instrument of Scotland, the mind drones wofully and will discourse most dolorous music, unless an expansive and resilient force within supplies the basis of quickly responsive action. No good, great, or enduring work can be safely accomplished by brain-force without a reserve of strength sufficient to give buoyancy to the exercise, and, if I may so say, rhythm to the operations of the mind. Working at high-pressure may be bad, but working at low-pressure is incomparably worse. As a matter of experience, a sense of weariness commonly precedes collapse from "overwork"; not mere bodily or nervous fatigue, but a more or less conscious distaste for the business in band, or perhaps for some other subject of thought or anxiety which obtrudes itself. It is the offensive or irritating burden that breaks the back. Thoroughly agreeable employment, however engrossing, stimulates the recuperative faculty while it taxes the strength, and the supply of nerve-force seldom falls short of the demand. When a feeling of disgust or weariness is not experienced, this may be because the compelling sense of duty has crushed self out of thought. Nevertheless, if the will is not pleasurably excited, if it rules like a martinet without affection or interest, there is no verve, and, like a complex piece of machinery working with friction and heated bearings, the mind wears itself away and a breakdown ensues. Let us look a little closely at this matter.

The part which "a stock of energy" plays in brain-work can scarcely be exaggerated. Reserves are of high moment everywhere in the animal economy, and the reserve of mental force is in a practical sense more important than any other. It may happen that mere strength of mind carries a body with scarcely a vestige of power in reserve through some crisis of extraordinary difficulty, but the mental exploit is full of danger. The residual air in a lung is the basis of the respiratory process; the sustained tension of the smaller arteries transforms the pulsating current of blood thrown into the system by the heart to a continuous circulation; the equilibriated tonicity of opposing muscles gives stability to the apparatus of motion, and renders specific combinations of movement possible. What is true of the physical is also true of the mental constitution; the residual force, the tension, the tonicity, of mind, form the basis of intellectual action. It is not necessary to discuss the relations of mind and matter; even if the mental being is no more than a formulated expression of the physical organism, the continuity is so complete that the same laws govern both. For the purposes of the present argument it is sufficient to assert that, without a reserve of energy, healthy brain-work is impossible. Pain, hunger, anxiety, and a sense of mind-weariness, are the warning tokens of exhaustion extending to the reserves. When these indications are disregarded, or destroyed, as they may be, by stupefying drugs, an inordinate use of stimulants, a strong effort of the will, or the anæsthetic effect of excessive exhaustion, the consumption of energy goes on unobserved. The feats of intellectual or physical strength, the surprising exploits of special sensation and mind-power, performed by individuals under the influence of any condition which suspends the sense of pain, weakness, or fatigue, are explained by the circumstance that unsuspected reserves of power and endurance are placed at the disposal of the will. These resources were there before, but jealously guarded by the sensations. Martyrdom is possible under the influence of an over- powering abstraction. Passion may produce a similar immunity from pain, and give ability to endure even self-inflicted injury. The daily experience of lunatic asylums will abundantly attest the truth of this last assertion.

How does all this bear upon the subject? It seems rather to strengthen the position assailed, by showing that "overwork" may exhaust the reserves, thereby arresting the function, and possibly destroying the integrity, of the mental organism! That is undoubtedly the surface view of the case, and it is the popular explanation of what occurs. To controvert the received hypothesis is the object of the present paper. The argument, opposed to the theory of work itself exhausting the stock of energy, may be simply stated thus: the reserves, physical and mental, are too closely guarded to be invaded by direct encroachment. Pain is not suspended by the persistent infliction of injury unless the mechanism of sensation is disabled or destroyed. Hunger does not cease until starvation has assailed the seat of nutrition. The sense of extreme weariness is not allayed by increased activity, but the longing for rest may subside, because it has been stifled by some overwhelming influence. The natural safeguards are so well fitted for their task that neither body nor mind is exposed to the peril of serious exhaustion so long as their functions are duly performed. In brief, overwork is impossible so long as the effort made is natural. When energy, of any kind, takes a morbid form of action, some force outside itself must be reacting upon it injuriously; and the seat of the injury, so far as the sinister influence on energy is concerned, will be found in close proximity to the sensation which under normal conditions guards the reserve. The use of stimulants in aid of work is, perhaps, one of the commonest forms of collateral influence suspending the warning sense of exhaustion. When the laborious worker, overcome with fatigue, "rouses" himself with alcohol, coffee, tea, or any other agent which may chance to suit him, he does not add a unit of force to his stock of energy, he simply narcotizes the sense of weariness, and, the guard being drugged, he appropriates the reserve. In like manner, when the dreamer and night-watcher, worn out by sleeplessness, employs opium, chloral, or some other poison to produce the semblance of repose, he stupefies the consciousness of unrest, but, except in cases where it is only a habit of sleeplessness, which has been contracted, and, being interrupted, may be broken by temporary recourse to a perilous artifice, the condition is unrelieved. Not unfrequently the warning sense is stifled by the very intensity of the motive power or impulse. Ambition, zeal, love, sometimes fear, will carry a man beyond the bounds set by nature. No matter what suspends the functions of the guard set at the threshold of the reserve, if the residual stock is touched, two consequences ensue—waste and depreciation. It is important to recognize both of these evils. The former is generally perceived, the latter is commonly overlooked. The reserve, as we have seen, plays a double part in the economy: it is a stock in abeyance, and it is the base of every present act. Without a reserve of mental energy, the mind can no more continue the healthful exercise of its functions than a flabby muscle without tonicity can respond to the stimulus of strong volition and lift a heavy weight or strike a heavy blow.

The cause, or condition, which most commonly exposes the reserve of mental energy to loss and injury is worry. The tone and strength of mind are seriously impaired by its wearing influence, and, if it continue long enough, they will be destroyed. It sets the organism of thought and feeling vibrating with emotions which are not consonant with the natural liberation of energy in work. The whole machinery is thrown out of gear, and exercise, which would otherwise be pleasurable and innocuous, becomes painful and even destructive. It is easy to see how this must be. The longest note in music, the most steady and persistent ray of light—to use an old-fashioned expression—the tonic muscular contraction, are all, we know, produced by a rapid succession of minute motive impulses or acts, like the explosion and discharge of electricity from alternately connected and separated points in a circuit; in fact, a series of vibrations. Mental energy doubtless takes the same form of development. If a disturbing element is introduced by the obtrusion of some independent source of anxiety, or if, out of the business in hand, the mind makes a discord, confusion ensues, and for the time being harmonious action ceases. Working under these conditions in obedience to the will, the mental organism sustains injury which must be great, and may be lasting. The function of the warning sense is suspended; the reserve is no longer a stock in abeyance, and it ceases to give stability to the mind; the rhythm of the mental forces is interrupted; a crash is always impending, and too often sudden collapse occurs. The point to be made clear is this: overwork is barely possible, and seldom, if ever, happens, while the mind is acting in the way prescribed by its constitution, and in the normal modes of mental exercise. The moment, however, the natural rhythm of work is broken and discord ensues, the mind is like an engine with the safety-valve locked, the steam-gauge falsified, the governing apparatus out of gear; a breakdown may occur at any instant. The state pictured is one of worry, and the besetting peril is not depicted in too lurid colors. The victim of worry is ever on the verge of a catastrophe: if he escape, the marvel is not at his strength of intellect so much as his good fortune. Worry is disorder, however induced, and disorderly work is abhorred by the laws of nature, which leave it wholly without remedy. The energy employed in industry carried on under this condition is lavished in producing a small result, and speedily exhausted. The reserve comes into play very early in the task, and the faculty of recuperation is speedily arrested. Sometimes loss of appetite announces the cessation of nutrition; otherwise the sense of hunger, present in the system, is for a time preternaturally acute, and marks the fact that the demand is occasioned by loss of power to appropriate, instead of any diminution of supply. The effort to work becomes daily more laborious, the task of fixing the attention grows increasingly difficult, thoughts wander, memory fails, the reasoning power is enfeebled; prejudice—the shade of defunct emotion or some past persuasion—takes the place of judgment; physical nerve or brain disturbance may supervene, and the crash will then come suddenly, unexpected by on-lookers, perhaps unperceived by the sufferer himself. This is the history of "worry," or disorder produced by mental disquietude and distraction, occasionally by physical disease.

The first practical inference to be deduced from these considerations is that brain-work in the midst of mental worry is carried on in the face of ceaseless peril. Unfortunately, work and worry are so closely connected in daily experience that they can not be wholly separated. Meanwhile the worry of work—that which grows out of the business in hand—is generally a needless though not always an avoidable evil. In a large proportion of instances this description of disorder is due to the lack of education in brain-work. Men and women, with minds capacious and powerful enough but untrained, attempt feats for which training is indispensable, and, being unprepared, they fail. The utilitarian policy of the age is gradually eliminating from the educationary system many of the special processes by which minds used to be developed. This is, in part at least, why cases of sudden collapse are more numerous now than in years gone by. It is not, as vanity suggests, that the brain-work of to-day is so much greater than that exacted from our predecessors, but we are less well prepared for its performance. The treatment of this form of affection, the break-down from the worry of work, must be preventive; the sole remedy is the reversal of a policy which substitutes results for processes, knowledge for education. It is a serious cause of discomfiture and sorrow in work that so much of the brain-power expended is necessarily devoted to the removal of extraneous causes of worry. Labor is so fatal to life, because it is so difficult to live. The deadly peril of work in the midst of worry must be confronted, because the disturbing cause can only be got rid of by persistent labor. This is the crux of the difficulty, and, in the attempt to cure the evil, the struggling mind finds its fate involved in a vicious circle of morbid reactions. Nevertheless, it is the fact that work in the teeth of worry is fraught with peril, and whenever it can be avoided it should be, let the sacrifice cost what it may.

The second deduction must be, that there is no excuse for idleness in the pretense of fear of "overwork." There is some reason to apprehend that the attention recently directed to this alleged cause of mental unsoundness has not been free from a mischievous influence on minds only too ready to take refuge in any excuse for inactivity. If the private asylums of the country were searched for the victims of "overwork," they would nearly all he found to have fallen a prey to "worry," or to that degeneracy which results from lack of purpose in life and steady employment. This is a grave assertion, but it points to an evil it is especially needful to expose. Weak minds drift into dementia with wondrous celerity when they are not carried forward to some goal, it matters little what, by the impulse of a strong motive. The bugbear of "overwork" is, it may be feared, deterring parents and friends from enforcing the need of sedulous industry on the young. The pernicious system of "cram" slays its thousands, because uneducated, undeveloped, inelastic intellects are burdened and strained with information adroitly deposited in the memory, as an expert valet packs a portmanteau, with the articles likely to be first wanted on the top. Desultory occupation, mere play with objects of which the true interest is not appreciated, ruins a still larger number; while worry, that bane of brain-work and mental energy, counts its victims by tens of thousands, a holocaust of minds sacrificed to the demon of discord, the foe of happiness, of morality, of success. The enemy takes many shapes and assumes bewildering disguises. Sometimes he comes in like a flood, hurrying everything before him; with heaps of work to be done in less than adequate time. Now the victim is hurried from task to task with a celerity fatal to sanity. Then he is chained like a galley-slave to some uncongenial labor without respite. Again, a buzz of distracting and irritating mental annoyances seem let loose to distress and distract him. Under each and all of these guises it is worry that molests, and, unless he be rescued, will ruin him. Meanwhile, the miseries of "overwork," pure and simple, are few and comparatively insignificant. Those who bewail their infliction most loudly are weak of mind or torpid of brain. Of such lame and maimed mortals we are not now thinking. Their lot may be humiliating or pitiable, as their condition is due to neglect or misfortune; but our concern is with the multitude of strong and able-minded workers who fail at their task. These are the victims not of overwork but of worry, a foe more treacherous and merciless than all besides. The mind-cure for the malady to which "worry" gives rise, and from which so many suffer, is not idleness, or "rest," in the ordinary sense of that term, but orderly and persistent work. The work by which they have been injured has not been excessive, but bad of its kind and badly done. The palsied faculties must be strengthened and incited to healthy nutrition by new activity, at first, perhaps, administered in the form of passive mental movement, and then induced by appropriate stimuli applied to the mind.—Nineteenth Century.