We have seen in the previous chapter how two factors -inexplicable fears and feelings of deprivation – stem from an internal mismanagement or poor handling of almost universal stress situations. But there are other important anxiety and tension trigger factors that need our attention if we are going to be able to recognize them at work in our lives, and so take evasive and therapeutic action against them (by using the relaxation response to defuse them).
The word tension basically means ‘stretched’, and anxiety means ‘to throttle’. The ‘overstretched’ and anxious person will often say he feels ‘throttled’ or ‘obstructed’ by society, or by the boss, his spouse, government restrictions, regulations, and so on. A brief look at this basic foundation of anxiety and tension will give other useful clues as to methods of escape from anxiety in everyday life.
Sometimes these throttled feelings produce aggression as a precursor of anxiety. So primal is this type of anxiety provocation that it is not difficult to set up simple animal experiments that show it in action. It is quite easy, for instance, to teach animals that by pressing a lever, or operating a door, they can gain access to food, and it is not too much of a stretch of the imagination to consider this to be a very simple creative act. But if, once the animal is thoroughly habituated to his nice little piece of creativity, instead of getting his expected food he occasionally receives an electric shock, the chances are that after the initial surprise he will react by aggression and will fight the door or lever. If the experiment is continued, a state of uncertainty sets in and the animal demonstrates psychological upset, twitchiness, tension, stress and anxiety brought about by throttled creativity and hunger.
The need to create something as part of everyday existence is apparently essential to our mental wellbeing. Some years ago the manufacturers of Volvo cars were looking for ways of combating boredom and inefficiency on their production lines, for a bored assembly worker is a difficult and anxious man to handle and is prone to aggressive reactions. Often such aggression is reflected in strikes and industrial unrest. Volvo found a way around this dilemma by arranging matters so that groups built their ‘own’ Volvos. In other words, they escaped the demoralizing repetitiveness of the production line and could instead see the end product they had created.
Many people are lucky enough to have jobs and occupations that have an element of creativity about them. This may be sufficient to keep anxiety and tension at bay. But if they are suddenly removed from such work – through job loss, retirement, or a reorganization which transfers them from their creative work to something more humdrum – anxiety and tension often manifest themselves quite quickly. (There would seem to be a strong argument these days for teaching the relaxation response to everyone in industry whose job is threatened, with a view to possible prophylaxis in the future!)
One of the less well-known examples of tension and anxiety being generated within a personality is what I call, for want of a better phrase, ‘easy street neurosis’. What happens is as follows. A successful man or woman who has led a busy life, and has perhaps created a flourishing business, finds that a take-over offer is irresistible. Sensing what the personal loss of his brain child will mean, he often retains a position of some substance within the new set up. But rarely does this new position involve the same skills, responsibility and flair that created the original business. The (fortunate) abdication of a former arduous role convinces the ‘victim’ that in compensation, he will now have all the time in the world for golf, bridge, holidays, leisure – all the things that, for a busy person, were previously at a premium. Reality, however, is often disappointing. New and usually younger people are involved in the creative side of the new organization. The new position that the creator of the business has negotiated for himself is for the first time seen for the shell that it is. Such an abrupt loss of anxiety-assuaging creativity produces a sudden onset of tension and ill health. That is, unless suitable new creative activities and an understanding of how anxiety can be combated by relaxation restore the status quo.
Women sometimes experience a short sharp dose of ‘easy street neurosis’ when they least expect it – when finally, and often with a sigh of relief, their youngest child leaves the nest. Suddenly everything should be marvellous but in fact anxiety and tension move in and take over.
Retirement, too, if entered into suddenly and without proper planning, produces loss of work symptoms that are heavily laced with tension and anxiety.
Unfortunately, in our culture few people are lucky enough to live by their creativity. There is a tendency, too, to denigrate creative hobbies as being undesirably arty-crafty – often by those who really need them. Surprisingly perhaps, just those people who most often need some activity or hobby in tune with creativity, instead tend to spend their time and money in competitive tension-producing games and activities -for example golf, football, sailing and jogging.
Jogging is at the moment enjoying a popularity that is quite unrelated to its health-giving properties. The stressed and haggard face of the jogger who strives to push his body to greater and greater feats of endurance, pitting his stamina against the clock and distance, gives the lie to this being a really healthy activity. It is also a lonely sport devoid of any creative bonus.
Anxiety-assuaging creative activity does not necessarily mean the work of the painter, the sculptor or the potter, although such activities are indeed highly potent anxiety-reducing occupations. Somehow whenever the brain and eye are directly linked with the hand, in creativity, stress is spontaneously reduced. The quietly skilled dressmaker, the enthusiastic knitter, even the dedicated pastrycook, equally well demonstrate the power that an admirable end product has in assuaging anxiety. A similar feeling of being able to sit back and admire something one has created also helps the psyche of the do-it-yourself fanatic or the keen gardener.
Of course not every tense person is suffering from a sense of throttled and restricted creativity. Nevertheless, if you look at the artist, the successful performer, the confident and creative teacher, the proud gardener with his splendid lawn and basket of vegetables, you will very often see the contented and relaxed person. This happens so frequently that it is well worth remembering the positive and helpful elements of the creative process in the battle against tension and stress.
It is not necessary to be a creative person in the conventional sense to harness the power of creativity to fight anxiety and tension. The control of anxiety begins with thought and proceeds to action. Any personal ‘project’, an evening class, a new hobby, a drama class, has a built-in creativity bonus. Some find a warming sense of creativity by involving themselves in good works and charity jobs. If these are carried out without thought of personal advantage they can be truly creative.
Another often forgotten creative activity is the organization of, and the participation in, the traditional family festival. To many the membership of a ‘larger family’ – a religious sect or body of the church – helps to fight anxiety both by the observation of ritual and by Faith. To ‘take a Faith’ increases confidence in the meaningfulness of life. Uncertainty is, of course, inherent in life, but through religion it is often possible to put one’s trust in another Being. Such a positive trust allows many fears to be accepted and overcome – even the universal fear of death and dying. Perhaps a simple acceptance of reality, and the confidence that in a way there is a divinity within ourselves, is the greatest act of creativity that we can accomplish in the universal search we all make as we try in many different ways to seek the tranquillity of the truly quiet and selfless soul.