As modern pressures take their toll doctors preach relaxation
"Rule No. 1 is, don't sweat the small stuff. Rule No. 2 is, it's all small stuff. And if you can't fight and you can't flee, flow."
—University of Nebraska Cardiologist Robert Eliot, on how to cope with stress
It is the dawn of human history, and Homo sapiens steps out from his cave to watch the rising sun paint the horizon. Suddenly he hears a rustling in the forest. His muscles tense, his heart pounds, his breath comes rapidly as he locks eyes with a saber-toothed tiger. Should he fight or run for his life? He reaches down, picks up a sharp rock and hurls it. The animal snarls but disappears into the trees. The man feels his body go limp, his breathing ease. He returns to his darkened den to rest.
It is the start of another working day, and Homo sapiens steps out of his apartment building into the roar of rush hour. He picks his way through the traffic and arrives at the corner just in time to watch his bus pull away. Late for work, he opens his office door and finds the boss pacing inside. His report was due an hour ago, he is told; the client is furious. If he values his job, he had better have a good explanation. And, by the way, he can forget about taking a vacation this summer. The man eyes a paperweight on his desk and longs to throw it at his oppressor. Instead, he sits down, his stomach churning, his back muscles knotting, his blood pressure climbing. He reaches for a Maalox and an aspirin and has a sudden yearning for a dry martini, straight up.
The saber-toothed tiger is long gone, but the modern jungle is no less perilous. The sense of panic over a deadline, a tight plane connection, a reckless driver on one's tail are the new beasts that can set the heart racing, the teeth on edge, the sweat streaming. These responses may have served our ancestors well; that extra burst of adrenaline got their muscles primed, their attention focused and their nerves ready for a sudden "fight or flight." But try doing either one in today's traffic jams or boardrooms. "The fight-or-flight emergency response is inappropriate to today's social stresses," says Harvard Cardiologist Herbert Benson, an expert on the subject. It is also dangerous. Says Psychiatrist Peter Knapp of Boston University: "When you get a Wall Street broker using the responses a cave man used to fight the elements, you've got a problem."
Indeed we have.
In the past 30 years, doctors and health officials have come to realize how heavy a toll stress is taking on the nation's well being. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, two-thirds of office visits to family doctors are prompted by stress-related symptoms. At the same time, leaders of industry have become alarmed by the huge cost of such symptoms in absenteeism, company medical expenses and lost productivity. Based on national samples, these costs have been estimated at $50 billion to $75 billion a year, more than $750 for every U.S. worker. Stress is now known to be a major contributor, either directly or indirectly, to coronary heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidental injuries, cirrhosis of the liver and suicide—six of the leading causes of death in the U.S. Stress also plays a role in aggravating such diverse conditions as multiple