Nervous prostration is generally understood to mean weakness of the nerves. It invariably comes to those who have extra strong nerves, but who do not know how to use them properly, as well as those whose nervous system is naturally weak and easily disorganized. Nervous prostration is a disease of overwork, mainly mental overwork, and in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, comes from worry. Worry is the most senseless and insane form of mental work. It is as if a bicycle-rider were so riding against time that, the moment after he got off his machine to sit down to a meal he sprang up again, and while eating were to work his arms and legs as if he were riding. It is the slave-driver that stands over the slave and compels him to continue his work, even though he is so exhausted that hands, arms and legs cease to obey, and he falls asleep at his task.
The folly, as well as the pain and distress of this cruel slave-driving is that we hold the whip over ourselves, have trained ourselves to do it, and have done it so long that now we seem unable to stop. In another chapter there is fully described (in Dorothy Canfield's vivid words) the squirrel-cage whirligig of modern society life. Modern business life is not much better. Men compel themselves to the endless task of amassing money without knowing why they amass it. They make money, that they may enlarge their factories, to make more ploughs, to get more money, to enlarge their factories, to make more ploughs, to get more money, to enlarge more factories, to make more ploughs, and so on, ad infinitum.
Where is the sense of it. Such conduct has well been termed money-madness. It is an obsession, a disease, a form of hypnotism, a mental malady.
The tendency of the age is to drive. We drive our own children to school; there they are driven for hours by one study after another; even when they come home they bring lessons with them—the lovers of study and over-conscientious because they want to do them, and the laggards because they must, if they are to keep up with their classes. If the parents of such children are not careful, they (the children) soon learn to worry; they are behind-hand with their lessons; they didn't get the highest mark yesterday; the class is going ahead of them, etc., etc., until mental collapse comes.
For worrying is the worst kind of mental overwork. As Dr. Edward Livingston Hunt, of Columbia University, New York, said in a paper read by him early in 1912, before the Public Health Education Committee of the Medical Society of the County of New York: There is a form of overwork, exceedingly common and exceedingly disastrous—one which equally accompanies great intellectual labors and minor tasks. I allude to worry. When we medical men speak of the workings of the brain we make use of a term both expressive and characteristic. It is to cerebrate. To cerebrate means to think, to reason, and to reach conclusions; it means to concentrate and to work hard. To think, then, is to cerebrate. To worry is to cerebrate intensely.
Worry is overwork of the most disastrous kind; it means to drive the mental machinery at an unreasonable and dangerous rate. Worry gives the brain no rest, but rather keeps the delicate cells in constant and continuous action. Work is wear; worry is tear. Overwork, mental strain, and worry lead to a diminution of nerve force and to a prostration of the vital forces and causes a degeneracy of the blood vessels of the brain.
Exhaustion, another name for fatigue, may show itself either in the form of physical collapse, so that the patient lacks resistance, and, becoming anemic and run down, falls a prey to any and every little ailment, or in the form of mental collapse. An exhausted brain then gives way to depression, to fears, and to anxiety.
The vast majority of nervous breakdowns are avoidable; they are the result of our own excesses and of the disregard we show toward the ordinary laws of health and hygiene; they are the results of the tremendous demands which are made upon us by modern life; they are the result of the strenuous life.
From this analysis, made by an expert, it is evident that worry and nervous prostration are but two points on the same circle. Nervous prostration causes worry, and worry causes nervous prostration. Those who overwork their bodies and minds—who drive themselves either with the cares of business, the amassing of wealth, yielding to the demands of society, the cravings of ambition, or the pursuit of pleasure, are alike certain to suffer the results of mental overwork.
And here let me interject what to me has become a fundamental principle upon which invariably I rely. It will be recalled what I have said elsewhere of selfish and unselfish occupations. It is the selfish occupations that produce nerveexhaustion.
Those that are unselfish seldom result in the disturbance of the harmony or equilibrium of our nature—whether we regard it as physical, mental, or spiritual. This may seem to be a trancendental statement—perhaps it is. But I am confidently assured of its essential truth. That man or woman who is truly engaged in an unselfish work—a work that is for the good of others—has a right to look for, to expect and to receive from the great All Source of strength, power and serenity all that is needed to keep the body, mind and soul in harmony, consequently in perfect health and free from worry.
Hence the apparent paradox that, if you would care for yourself you must disregard yourself in your loving care for others.
One great reason why worry produces nervous prostration is that it induces insomnia.
Worry and sleeplessness are twin sisters. As one has well said: "Refreshing sleep and vexing thoughts are deadly foes." Health and happiness often disappear from those who fail to sleep, for sleep, indeed, is "tired Nature's sweet restorer," as Young in his Night Thoughts termed it. Shakspere never wrote anything truer when he said: Sleep that knits up the ravell'd sleave of care, The death of each day's life, sore labor's bath, Balm of hurt minds, great Nature's second course, Chief nourisher of life's feast.
Or, where he spoke of it as Sleep that sometimes shuts up sorrow's eye, Steals me awhile from mine own company.
Even the Bible makes sleep one of the special blessings of God, for we are told that "He giveth His beloved sleep." The sacred book contains many references to sleeplessness and its causes.
Undoubtedly most potent among these causes is worry. The worrier retires to his bed at the usual hour, but his brain is busy—it is working overtime. What is it doing? Is it thinking over things that are to be done, and planning for the future? If so, there is a legitimate excuse, for as soon as the plan is laid, rest will come, and he will sleep. Is he thinking over the mistakes of the past and sensibly and wisely taking counsel from them? If so, he will speedily come to a decision, and then sleep will bring grateful oblivion. Is he thinking joyful thoughts? These will bring a natural feeling of harmony with all things, and that is conducive to speedy sleep? Is he thinking of how he may help others? That is equally soothing to nerves, brain and body, and brings the refreshment of forgetfulness.
But no! the worrier has another method. He thinks the same thoughts over and over again, without the slightest attempt to get anywhere. He has thrashed them out before, so often that he can tell exactly what each thought will lead to. His ideas go around in a circle like the horse tied to the wheel. He is on a treadmill ever ascending, tramping, up, up, up and up, and still up, but the wheel falls down each time as far as he steps up, and after hours and hours of unceasing, wracking, distressful mental labor, he has done absolutely nothing, has not progressed one inch, is still in the clutch of the same vicious treadmill. Brain weary, nerve weary, is there any wonder that he rolls and tosses, throws over his pillow, kicks off the clothes, groans, almost cries aloud in his agony of longing for rest. Poor victim of worry and sleeplessness, how I long to help you get rid of your evil habit and save others from falling into it. For both worry and sleeplessness are habits, easily gained, and once gained very hard to get rid of, yet both unnecessary, needless, and foolish. The worry that produces sleeplessness is merciless; so merciless and relentless that no fierce torture of a Black-hander can be described that is worse in its long continuing and evil results. Lives are wrecked, brains shattered, happiness destroyed by this monstrous evil, and many a man and woman fastens it upon himself, herself, through indulging in anxious thought, or by yielding to that equal devil-dragon of self-pity.
David the psalmist graphically tells of his own case: I am weary with my groaning; Every night make I my bed to swim; I water my couch with my tears, Mine eye wasteth away because of grief. Ps. VI. 6:7.
At another time he cries My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my groaning? Oh my God, I cry in the day time, but thou answereth not; And in the night season, I am not silent. Ps. XXII. 1:2.
Yet God heard him not until his groaning and self-pity were cast aside, until he rested in God, trusted in Him. Then came rest, as he graphically expresses it: I laid me down and slept; I awaked; for Jehovah sustaineth me. Ps. III. 5.
In peace will I both lay me down and sleep: For thou, Jehovah, alone maketh me dwell in safety. Ps. IV. 8.
I will bless Jehovah, who hath given me counsel; Yea, my heart instructeth me in the night seasons. Ps. XVI. 7.
See the result of this confidence in God.
I have set Jehovah always before me: Because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.
Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth: My flesh also shall dwell in safety. Ps. XVI. 8:9.
And where the heart is glad, and one rejoiceth in the sense of peace and safety, sweet sleep lays its soothing hand upon the work-worn brain and body, tired with the labors of the day, and brings rest, repose, recuperation.
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