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Nervous Strain In The Emotions
Source: Power Through Repose
THE most intense suffering which follows a misuse of the nervous
power comes from exaggerated, unnecessary, or sham emotions. We each
have our own emotional microscope, and the strength of its lens
increases in proportion to the supersensitiveness of our nervous
system. If we are a little tired, an emotion which in itself might
hardly be noticed, so slight is the cause and so small the result,
will be magnified many times. If we are very tired, the magnifying
process goes on until often we have made ourselves ill through
various sufferings, all of our own manufacture.
This increase of emotion has not always nervous fatigue as an
excuse. Many people have inherited emotional magnifying glasses, and
carry them through the world, getting and giving unnecessary pain,
and losing more than half of the delight of life in failing to get
an unprejudiced view of it. If the tired man or woman would have the
good sense to stop for one minute and use the power which is given
us all of understanding and appreciating our own perverted states
and so move on to better, how easy it would be to recognize that a
feeling is exaggerated because of fatigue, and wait until we have
gained the power to drop our emotional microscopes and save all the
evil results of allowing nervous excitement to control us. We are
even permitted to see clearly an inherited tendency to magnify
emotions and to overcome it to such an extent that life seems new to
us. This must be done by the individual himself, through a personal
appreciation of his own mistakes and active steps to free himself
from them. No amount of talking, persuading, or teaching will be of
the slightest service until that personal recognition comes. This
has been painfully proved too often by those who see a friend
suffering unnecessarily, and in the short-sighted attempt to wrench
the emotional microscope from his hand, simply cause the hold to
tighten and the magnifying power to increase. A careful, steady
training of the physique opens the way for a better practice of the
wholesome philosophy, and the microscope drops with the relaxation
of the external tension which has helped to hold it.
Emotions are often not even exaggerated but are from the beginning
imaginary; and there are no more industrious imps of evil than these
sham feelings. The imps have no better field for their destructive
work than in various forms of morbid, personal attachment, and in
what is commonly called religion,--but which has no more to do with
genuine religion than the abnormal personal likings have to do with
It is a fact worthy of notice that the two powers most helpful, most
strengthening, when sincerely felt and realized, are the ones
oftenest perverted and shammed, through morbid states and abnormal
nervous excitement. The sham is often so perfect an image of the
reality that even the shammer is deceived.
To tell one of these pseudo-religious women that the whole attitude
of her externally sanctified life is a sham emotion, would rouse
anything but a saintly spirit, and surprise her beyond measure. Yet
the contrast between the true, healthful, religious feeling and the
sham is perfectly marked, even though both classes follow the same
forms and belong to the same charitable societies. With the one,
religion seems to be an accomplishment, with a rivalry as to who can
carry it to the finest point; with the other, it is a steadily
growing power of wholesome use.
This nervous strain from sham emotions, it must be confessed, is
more common to the feminine nature. So dangerously prevalent is it
that in every girls' school a true repression of the sham and a
development of real feeling should be the thoughtful, silent effort
of all the teachers. Any one who knows young girls feels deeply the
terrible harm which comes to them in the weakening of their
delicate, nervous systems through morbid, emotional excitement. The
emotions are vividly real to the girls, but entirely sham in
themselves. Great care must be taken to respect the sense of reality
which a young girl has in these mistakes, until she can be led out
so far that she herself recognizes the sham; then will come a
hearty, wholesome desire to be free from it.
A school governed by a woman with strong "magnetism," and an equally
strong love of admiration and devotion, can be kept in a chronic
state of hysteria by the emotional affection of the girls for their
teacher. When they cannot reach the teacher they will transfer the
feeling to one another. Where this is allowed to pervade the
atmosphere of a girls' school, those who escape floods of tears or
other acute hysterical symptoms are the dull, phlegmatic
Often a girt will go from one of these morbid attachments to
another, until she seems to have lost the power for a good,
wholesome affection. Strange as it may seem, the process is a steady
hardening of the heart. The same result comes to man or woman who
has followed a series of emotional flirtations,--the perceptions are
dulled, and the whole tone of the system, mental and physical, is
weakened. The effect is in exact correspondence in another degree
with the result which follows an habitual use of stimulants.
Most abnormal emotional states are seen in women--and sometimes in
men--who believe themselves in love. The suffering is to them very
real. It seems cruel to say, "My dear, you are not in the least in
love with that man; you are in love with your own emotions. If some
one more attractive should appear, you could at once transfer your
emotional tortures to the seemingly more worthy object." Such ideas
need not be flung in so many words at a woman, but she may be gently
led until she sees clearly for herself the mistake, and will even
laugh at the morbid sensations that before seemed to her terribly
How many foolish, almost insane actions of men and women come from
sham emotions and the nervous excitement generated by them, or from
nervous excitement and the sham emotions that result in consequence!
Care should be taken first to change the course of the nervous power
that is expressing itself morbidly, to open for it a healthy outlet,
to guide it into that more wholesome channel, and then help the
owner to a better control and a clearer understanding, that she may
gain a healthy use of her wonderful nervous power. A gallop on
horseback, a good swim, fresh air taken with any form of wholesome
fun and exercise is the way to begin if possible. A woman who has
had all the fresh air and interesting exercise she needs, will shake
off the first sign of morbid emotions as she would shake off a rat
or any other vermin.
To one who is interested to study the possible results of
misdirected nervous power, nothing could illustrate it with more
painful force than the story by Rudyard Kipling, "In the Matter of a
Real emotions, whether painful or delightful, leave one eventually
with a new supply of strength; the sham, without exception, leave
their victim weaker, physically and mentally, unless they are
recognized as sham, and voluntarily dismissed by the owner of the
nerves that have been rasped by them. It is an inexpressibly sad
sight to see a woman broken, down and an invalid, for no reason
whatever but the unnecessary nervous excitement of weeks and months
of sham emotion. Hardly too strong an appeal can be made to mothers
and teachers for a careful watchfulness of their girls, that their
emotions be kept steadily wholesome, so that they may grow and
develop into that great power for use and healthful sympathy which
always belongs to a woman of fine feeling.
There is a term used in college which describes most expressively an
intense nervous excitement and want of control,--namely, "dry
drunk." It has often seemed to me that sham emotions are a woman's
form of getting drunk, and nervous prostration is its delirium
tremens. Not the least of the suffering caused by emotional
excitement comes from mistaken sympathy with others. Certain people
seem to live on the principle that if a friend is in a swamp, it is
necessary to plunge in with him; and that if the other man is up to
his waist, the sympathizer shows his friendliness by allowing the
mud to come up to his neck. Whereas, it is evident that the deeper
my friend is immersed in a swamp, the more sure I must be to keep on
firm ground that I may help him out; and sometimes I cannot even
give my hand, but must use a long pole, the more surely to relieve
him from danger. It is the same with a mental or moral swamp, or
most of all with a nervous swamp, and yet so little do people
appreciate the use of this long pole that if I do not cry when my
friend cries, moan when my friend moans, and persistently refuse to
plunge into the same grief that I may be of more real use in helping
him out of it, I am accused by my friend and my friend's friend of
coldness and want of sympathy. People have been known to refuse the
other end of your pole because you will not leave it and come into
the swamp with them.
It is easy to see why this mistaken sympathy is the cause of great
unnecessary nervous strain. The head nurse of a hospital in one of
our large cities was interrupted while at dinner by the deep
interest taken by the other nurses in seeing an accident case
brought in. When the man was put out of sight the nurses lost their
appetite from sympathy; and the forcible way with which their
superior officer informed them that if they had any real sympathy
for the man they would eat to gain strength to serve him, gave a
lesson by which many nervous sympathizers could greatly profit.
Of course it is possible to become so hardened that you "eat your
dinner" from a want of feeling, and to be consumed only with
sympathy for yourself; but it is an easy matter to make the
distinction between a strong, wholesome sympathy and selfish want of
feeling, and easier to distinguish between the sham sympathy and the
real. The first causes you to lose nervous strength, the second
gives you new power for wholesome use to others.
In all the various forms of nervous strain, which we study to avoid,
let us realize and turn from false sympathy as one to be especially
and entirely shunned.
Sham emotions are, of course, always misdirected force; but it is
not unusual to see a woman suffering from nervous prostration caused
by nervous power lying idle. This form of invalidism comes to women
who have not enough to fill their lives in necessary interest and
work, and have not thought of turning or been willing to turn their
attention to some needed charity or work for others. A woman in this
state is like a steam-engine with the fire in full blast, and the
boiler shaking with the power of steam not allowed to escape in
A somewhat unusual example of this is a young woman who had been
brought up as a nervous invalid, had been through nervous
prostration once, and was about preparing for another attack, when
she began to work for a better control of her nervous force. After
gaining a better use of her machine, she at once applied its power
to work,--gradually at first and then more and more, until she found
herself able to endure what others had to give up as beyond their
The help for these, and indeed for all cases, is to make the life
objective instead of subjective. "Look out, not in; look up, not
down; lend a hand," is the motto that must be followed gently and
gradually, but _surely,_ to cure or to prevent a case of
But again, good sense and care must be taken to preserve the
equilibrium; for nervous tension and all the suffering that it
brings come more often from mistaken devotion to others than from a
want of care for them. Too many of us are trying to make special
Providences of ourselves for our friends. To say that this
short-sighted martyrdom is not only foolish but selfish seems hard,
but a little thought will show it to be so.
A woman sacrifices her health in over-exertion for a friend. If she
does not distress the object of her devotion entirely out of
proportion to the use she performs, she at least unfits herself, by
over-working, for many other uses, and causes more suffering than
she saves. So are the great ends sacrificed to the smaller.
" If you only knew how hard I am trying to do right" comes with a
strained face and nervous voice from many and many a woman. If she
could only learn in this case, as in others, of "vaulting ambition
that o'er-leaps itself and falls upon the other side;" if she could
only realize that the very strained effort with which she tries,
makes it impossible for her to gain,--if she would only "relax" to
whatever she has to do, and then try, the gain would be
The most intense sufferers from nervous excitement are those who
suppress any sign of their feeling. The effort to "hold in"
increases the nervous strain immensely. As in the case of one
etherized, who has suppressed fright which he feels very keenly, as
soon as the voluntary muscles are relaxed the impression on the
brain shows itself with all the vehemence of the feeling,--so when
the muscles are consciously relaxed the nervous excitement bursts
forth like the eruption of a small volcano, and for a time is a
surprise to the man or woman who has been in a constant effort of
The contrast between true self-control and that which is merely
repressed feeling, is, like all contrast between the natural and the
artificial, immeasurable; and the steadily increasing power to be
gained by true self-control cannot be conveyed in words, but must be
experienced in. actual use.
Many of us know with what intense force a temper masters us when,
having held in for some time, some spring is touched which makes
silence impossible, and the sense of relief which follows a volley
of indignant words. To say that we can get a far greater and more
lasting relief without a word, but simply through relaxing our
muscles and freeing our excited nerves, seems tame; but it is
practically true, and is indeed the only way from a physical
standpoint that one may be sure of controlling a high temper. In
that way, also, we keep the spirit, the power, the strength, from
which the temper comes, and so far from being tame, life has more
for us. We do not tire ourselves and lose nervous force through the
wear and tear of losing our temper. To speak expressively, if not
scientifically, Let go, and let the temper slip over your nerves and
off,--you do not lose it then, for you know where it is, and you
keep all the nervous force that would have been used in suppression
or expression for better work.
That, the reader will say, is not so easy as it sounds. Granted,
there must be the desire to get a true control of the temper; but
most of us have that desire, and while we cannot expect immediate
success, steady practice will bring startling results sooner than we
realize. There must be a clear, intelligent understanding of what we
are aiming at, and how to gain it; but that is not difficult, and
once recognized grows steadily as we gain practical results. Let the
first feeling of anger be a reminder to "let go." But you will say,
"I do not want to let go,"--only because your various grandfathers
and grandmothers were unaccustomed to relieving themselves in that
manner. When we give way to anger and let it out in a volley of
words, there is often a sense of relief, but more often a reaction
which is most unpleasant, and is greatly increased by the pain given
to others. The relief is certain if we "relax;" and not only is
there then no painful reaction, but we gain a clear head to
recognize the justice or injustice of our indignation, and to see
what can be done about its cause.
Petty irritability can be met in the same way. As with nervous pain
it seems at first impossible to "relax to it;" but the Rubicon once
crossed, we cannot long be irritable,--it is so much simpler not to
be, and so much more comfortable.
If when we are tempted to fly into a rage or to snap irritably at
others we could go through a short process of relaxing motions, the
effect would be delightful. But that would be ridiculous; and we
must do our relaxing in the privacy of the closet and recall it when
needed outside, that we may relax without observation except in its
happy results. I know people will say that anything to divert the
mind will cure a high temper or irritability. That is only so to a
limited extent; and so far as it is so, simply proves the best
process of control. Diversion relieves the nervous excitement,
turning the attention in another direction,--and so is relaxing so
far as it goes.
Much quicker and easier than self-control is the control which
allows us to meet the irritability of others without echoing it. The
temptation to echo a bad temper or an irritable disposition in
others, we all know; but the relief which comes to ourselves and to
the sufferer as we quietly relax and refuse to reflect it, is a
sensation that many of us have yet to experience. One keeps a clear
head in that way, not to mention a charitable heart; saves any
quantity of nervous strain, and keeps off just so much tendency to
Practically the way is opened to this better control through a
physical training which gives us the power of relaxing at will, and
so of maintaining a natural, wholesome equilibrium of nerves and
Personal sensitiveness is, to a great degree, a form of nervous
tension. An individual case of the relief of this sensitiveness,
although laughable in the means of cure, is so perfectly
illustrative of it that it is worth telling. A lady who suffered
very much from having her feelings hurt came to me for advice. I
told her whenever anything was said to wound her, at once to imagine
her legs heavy,--that relaxed her muscles, freed her nerves, and
relieved the tension caused by her sensitive feelings. The cure
seemed to her wonderful. It would not have done for her to think a
table heavy, or a chair, or to have diverted her mind in any other
way, for it was the effect of relaxation in her own body that she
wanted, which came from persistently thinking her legs heavy.
Neither could her sensitiveness have taken a very deep hold, or mere
outside relaxation would not have reached it; but that outside
process had the effect of greatly assisting in the power to use a
higher philosophy with the mind.
Self-consciousness and all the personal annoyances that come with or
follow it are to so great an extent nervous tension, that the ease
with which they may be helped seems sometimes like a miracle to
those who study for a better guidance of their bodies.
Of worries, from the big worries with a real foundation to the
miserable, petty, nagging worries that wear a woman's nervous system
more than any amount of steady work, there is so much to be said
that it would prove tedious, and indeed unnecessary to recount them.
A few words will suggest enough toward their remedy to those who are
looking in the right direction, and to others many words would be of
The petty worries are the most wearing, and they fortunately are the
most easily helped. By relaxing the muscular contractions invariably
accompanying them we seem to make an open channel, and they slip
through,--which expression I am well aware is not scientific. The
common saying, "Cares roll off her like water off a duck's back,"
means the same thing. Some human ducks are made with backs eminently
fitted for cares to slip from; but those whose backs seem to be made
to hold the cares can remould themselves to the right proportions,
and there is great compensation in their appreciation of the
Never resist a worry. It is increased many times by the effort to
overcome it. The strain of the effort makes it constantly more
difficult to drop the strain of the worry. When we quietly go to
work to relax the muscles and so quiet the nerves, ignoring a worry,
the way in which it disappears is surprising. Then is the time to
meet it with a broad philosophizing on the uselessness of worry,
etc., and "clinch" our freedom, so to speak.
It is not at the first attempt to relax, or the second, or the
ninth, that the worry will disappear for many of us, and especially
for worriers. It takes many hours to learn what relaxing is; but
having once learned, its helpful power is too evident for us not to
keep at it, if we really desire to gain our freedom.
To give the same direction to a worrier that was so effective with
the woman whose feelings were easily hurt, may seem equally
ridiculous; but in many cases it will certainly prove most useful.
When you begin to worry, think your legs heavy. Your friends will
appreciate the relief more than you do, and will gain as you gain.
A recital of all the emotional disturbances which seem to have so
strong a hold on us, and which are merely misdirected nervous force,
might easily fill a volume; but a few of the most common troubles,
such as have been given, will perhaps suffice to help each
individual to understand his own especial temptations in that
direction,--and if I have made even partially clear the ease with
which they may be relieved through careful physical training, it is
all I can hope for.
The body must be trained to obey the mind; the mind must be trained
to give the body commands worth obeying.
The real feelings of life are too exquisite and strengthening in
their depth and power to be crowded out by those gross forms of
nervous excitement which I can find no better name for than sham
emotions. If we could only realize this more broadly, and bring up
the children with a wholesome dread of morbid feeling what a marked
change would there be in the state of the entire race!
All physicians agree that in most cases it is not overwork, it is
not mental strain, that causes the greater number of cases of
nervous disturbance, but that they are more often brought on by
The deepest grief, as well as the greatest joy, can be met in a way
to give new strength and new power for use if we have a sound
philosophy and a well-guided, wholesome body to meet it. But these
last are the work of years; and neither the philosophy nor the
physical strength can be brought to bear at short notice, although
we can do much toward a better equilibrium even late in life.
Various forms of egotism, if not exactly sham emotions, are the
causes of great nervous strain. Every physician knows the intense
egotism which often comes with nervous prostration. Some one has
very aptly said that insanity is only egotism gone to seed. It often
seems so, especially when it begins with nervous prostration. We
cannot be too careful to shun this nervous over-care for self.
We inherit so strongly the subjective way of living rather than the
objective, that it impresses itself upon our very nerves; and they,
instead of being open channels for the power always at our command
to pass freely to the use for which it is intended, stop the way by
means of the attention which is so uselessly turned back on
ourselves, our narrow personal interests, and our own welfare. How
often we see cases where by means of the nervous tension all this
has increased to a disease, and the tiresome _Ego_ is a monster in
the way of its owner and all his would-be friends. "I cannot bear
this." "I shall take cold." "If you only knew how I suffered." Why
should we know, unless through knowing we can give you some relief?
And so it goes, I--I--I--forever, and the more the more nervous
Keep still, that all which is good may come to you, and live out to
others that your life may broaden for use. In this way we can take
all that Nature is ready to give us, and will constantly give us,
and use it as hers and for her purposes, which are always the truest
and best Then we live as a little child would live,--only with more
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