LET'S FACE IT. No other single force is more responsible for the worldwide epidemic of drug and alcohol abuse than hypertension, or excessive stress. What do we see in the world around us? Overcrowding. Interpersonal conflicts. Economic uncertainty. International strife. Uncertainty about the future. A gnawing sense of helplessness. These factors add up to create what Alvin Toffler described as future shock — a vague, continuous feeling of anxiety. It's a condition that can only be described as the disease of change.
More and more, people are seeking to dull the pain of this 20th century "disease" by using alcohol and drugs. But the supposed cure has itself created an epidemic. Organizational development consultant Karl Albrecht aptly summarizes today's state of mind in these words: "The use of mood-altering chemicals in America, and to some extent in other developed countries, has run completely wild. "Cultures we are pleased to label `primitive' all without exception reserve the use of tobacco, drugs and intoxicants for special occasions such as celebration and rituals. Only in the so-called advanced cultures do we use these chemically induced altered states of awareness as routine means for escaping reality." Stress is not necessarily a negative force. Stress is not, after all, just what happens to us, but how we react to what happens to us. And how we react is controlled by our mind and emotions.
The Role of Stress
To be alive is to be under a certain amount of stress. As endocrinologist Hans Selye, one of the world's foremost authorities on stress, says: "Most people who want to accomplish something, who are ambitious, live on stress. They need it." The right amount of stress can push us to perform at our very best. Stress also serves to protect us in hazardous situations. If we are driving along in fast traffic and another car swerves into our lane in front of us, a lot of things immediately happen in our bodies, in the brain, heart, muscular system. The body marshals inner forces and rises to meet the crisis, producing the positive effect of avoiding a collision. But if the crises and pressures around us become so frequent and so intense that we are constantly calling upon inner resources to respond so dramatically, the stress becomes debilitating. The body simply cannot meet such demands. Says health educator Leo R. Van Dolson: "When individuals are repeatedly forced to... accept continual
Using alcohol or drugs to cope with stress only creates further stress, contributing to a vicious and harmful cycle in a person's life.
change, especially changes involving conflict and uncertainty, an adaptive reaction occurs that draws upon the hormones, causing chemical reactions throughout the body that damage its reserves of energy." Having too much stress, which Dr. Selye refers to as hyper-stress, can be destructive to both our physical and emotional well-being. Many turn to alcohol or drugs to anesthetize the stress produced by emotionally upsetting events or situations: marital quarrels, poverty, fear, loneliness, job tensions. These individuals fail to realize, however, that using alcohol or drugs to cope with stress only creates further stress, contributing to a vicious and harmful cycle in a person's life. Using alcohol or drugs is not an effective measure for coping with pressures.
Right and Wrong Way to Relax
For instance, one important key to coping with stress is relaxation. More and more psychologists and physicians are coming to view occasional recreation not just as a help but as an essential part of a balanced life-style. Relaxing by a change of activity restores us. People with drug or alcohol problems do attempt to relax, but only by turning to a bottle filled with either alcohol or pills. The drug abuser, rather than learning how to properly relax, relies on drugs to relax him. He is confronting his problems in the wrong way. Here is why. Drug reliance, which can develop into addiction and cause a host of other related problems (as described by other articles in this series) spawns more stress. The drug user becomes trapped in the cycle. He uses drugs to cope with stress, and this use only creates more stress. Relaxation should, rather, involve exercise, a change of pace, momentarily getting one's mind off whatever is causing the stress (and that by mental choice, not with self-prescribed alcohol or drugs). A temperate use- of alcohol is only safely used by one who is already mentally relaxed. Alcohol should never be used to regularly induce relaxation. Since stress involves a person's mental or emotional reaction to external events, any effective program must involve, to one degree or another, a change of mind — a reorienting of life priorities. Besides relaxation, there are other effective measures for reducing the debilitating effects stress can have: • Be realistic. The drug abuser locks himself into a private world where clearly viewing the real world is difficult, if not impossible. He may mentally magnify his problems out of proportion. He becomes wrapped up in his difficulties, real or imagined, so that he cannot see anything else. Certainly, a person's problems may be real and serious — a broken marriage, unemployment and lack of money, problems with a child, illness. But dwelling on them to the point of becoming paralyzed by them — unable to take action — does not solve them. The solutions must come through emotional maturity, seeking wise counsel and getting control of one's life. Complaining about constant hard work, for example, only reinforces the stress. Focusing on the reward obtained from the work, on the other hand, will make the work a source of satisfaction rather than tension. Developing this kind of positive attitude toward stress-producing pressures will ease inner tensions. If we become more goal-oriented and look to the ultimate rewards for our efforts, pressures we daily undergo will not seem as difficult to bear. • Manage your time. Time management is important. It involves making optimum use of the time we have available to do the things that need to be done. Giving priority to tasks to get the most important — and, potentially, most worrisome — things done first, helps. Retreating to a drug-induced state of euphoria or forgetfulness certainly is not a wise use of time. When an individual comes down from his high, the same problems still exist. The same tasks remain undone, and may by then be even more urgent. The person may choose, then, to flee once again to his private, "safe," drugged world. It would be far better to manage time wisely and get things done. The resulting sense of accomplishment would produce its own circle of events — this one positive — encouraging the person to accomplish more. • Improve general health. A healthy, physically fit person can cope with a vast amount of pressure. He is adaptable, positive and generally hopeful. Poor health magnifies the small irritations of life and prolongs a cycle of illness. Consider, in the matter of improving general health, diet, exercise, rest, getting plenty of sunshine and developing self-control. Alcohol and drug abuse harm good health, thus putting more stress on the body and inviting further drug abuse to try to cope with the new problems. • Incorporate alternatives to stress. Life is filled with many sources of anxiety and unnecessary stimulation. We can simply choose to avoid some of these areas that induce stress unnecessarily, such as in the entertainment we pursue. When we stimulate our minds with an incessant barrage of loud, dissonant noise, and with themes that center on violence, crime and interpersonal tragedy, we voluntarily induce stress.
An Added Dimension
These physical techniques help ameliorate physical problems. But to completely eliminate hyper-stress and the (often) resultant alcohol and drug abuse problems hyper-stress often causes — involves changing the basic way human nature functions. The Bible, for example, provides much advice on stress, emotional maturity and mental health. "Anxiety in a man's heart weighs him down, but a good word makes him glad" (Prov. 12:25, Revised Standard Version throughout). What makes a person "glad", positive, optimistic, and have a constructive frame of mind? Indulgence in alcohol or drugs? No! Coping with anxiety involves developing a constant, positive attitude and approach to life. Helping and encouraging others by your thoughtful words and receiving support from others are important. "A cheerful heart is a good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones" (Prov. 17:22). The medicine we need is not a chemical! It is this outgoing, optimistic approach to life and resultant interest in others' needs. "A tranquil mind gives life to the flesh, but passion [King James Version: envy] makes the bones rot" (Prov. 14:30). Do drugs really produce this "tranquil" state of mind — this general, continual attitude of contentment that gives "life to the flesh" — that promotes a successful, happy life? Hardly. As Proverbs 12:25 and 17:22 showed, the Bible is not suggesting chemical solutions to human problems and stress. The answer is in one's basic approach to life. The Bible reveals that pursuing one's own desires and creature comforts will not make one happy. Jesus Christ summed it up: "It is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35). There it is! Preoccupation with self only contributes to the hyper-stress that has caused or compounded many of this world's problems. Ultimately resolving hyper-stress and its concomitant evils, then, is a matter of changing one's whole life-style from its general pattern of taking and selfishness to a life-style of giving, of service, of concern for others equal to or greater than concern for self! Dr. Selye himself, as an endocrinologist, has frequently expressed that hate causes stress and love eliminates it. He asks, "If everyone loved his neighbor as himself, how could there be any war, crime, aggression or even tension among people?" Psychologist Erich Fromm notes: "Not he who has much is rich, but he who gives much. The hoarder who is anxiously worried about losing something is, psychologically speaking, the poor, impoverished man, regardless of how much he has." In comparing the giving, loving person to the selfish' person, Dr. Fromm continues: "The selfish person is interested only in himself, wants everything for himself, feels no pleasure in giving, but only in taking. The world outside is looked at only from the standpoint of what he can get out of it." But what the selfish person does not realize is that his own selfishness is the root of his troubles. His selfishness "leaves him empty and frustrated. He is necessarily unhappy and anxiously concerned to snatch from life the satisfactions which he blocks himself from attaining." In short, if we give instead of take, our own problems and tensions vanish. Strange? It shouldn't be. As we live in this way of giving, debilitating stress will diminish — even disappear — from our lives. Then we can, as the apostle Paul put it: "Have no anxiety about anything.... And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 4:6-7).