Thursday, October 27, 2016

Book Review: Stress Free for Good

Title: Stress Free for Good

Author: Fred Luskin and Kenneth R. Pelletier

Fred Luskin's web site:

Kenneth Pelletier's web site:

Date: 2005

Publisher: Harper Collins

ISBN: 978-0-06-083299-5

Length: 224 pages

Quote: “Why, with information about stress readily available and people so comfortable talking about how to manage stress, are so many of us feeling overwhelmed and worn out?”

Maybe, Luskin and Pelletier thought, because they think stress management is going to take more time or rearrange their schedules more extensively than they want to do. Hence this book, in which the ideas from Pelletier’s Mind as Healer Mind as Slayer are reworked into a set of ten mini-meditation “practices.” The emphasis is on the idea that doing just the ones for which you feel an immediate need may help reduce the “wear and tear” (a phrase that recurs three or four times in this book) on your heart, although the more of them you can do, the more often, they seem to think, the better.

I’m qualified to review this book both as user and as teacher, in terms of three potential benefits it can have: on overall wellness, on emotional moods, and specifically on the heart and circulatory system.

I’d be a lot happier to recommend this book if it had included the priceless jewel of philosophy I discovered in my young-adult life: Fix facts first; feelings follow. The authors’ focus on reducing hypertension by breathing from the diaphragm (they use an uglier phrase for it) and doing things mindfully and meditating at least briefly every morning and so on is all very well, certainly better than the focus on emotions and automatic blame on everyone’s parents (even when their emotions were disturbed by abusive schools) that went before it. Still they show a tendency to reify the passing emotional mood of the moment and fixate on that—which is, in and of itself, a way I see a lot of people evading responsibility for the real-external-world situation that is causing the emotional stress. As long as the focus of attention is “me and my little emotional mood,” your moods are going to continue to come and go based on the weather, your digestion, and the quality of the air you’re breathing, and you’re going to continue feeling bad about the mere fact that you continue to feel bad at times. Nothing in this world is going to change that.

Paying attention to your feelings, both sensations and emotions, can help you identify the facts that need to be fixed so that you do feel as good as it’s possible for you to feel, in whatever your circumstances may be. Stress management, as discussed in this book, can be one way to fix the facts. But focussing on the feelings, treating them as the primary issue of concern, is usually a Wrong Turn on the Road to Wellness.

Does that mean the quick-fix mini-meditations don’t work? No; they’ve been on the market for about thirty years, and I can personally affirm that they do work—as far as they go! Reading this new summary of old familiar ideas was quite a nostalgia trip for this reviewer.

It took me back to the transfer to university as an undergraduate, in order to prepare for an exciting career on the cutting edge of research into the interaction between mental and physical health…the mandatory course, at the university that hoped to achieve fame in this field, in Cardiovascular Fitness, with studies of Pelletier’s early work for readings, aerobic exercise as homework, and mile-and-a-half sprints for tests…and only one of the other girls in the class sprinted a mile and a half faster than I did, until I became ill right after Thanksgiving.

Mononucleosis, a bad case, complicated by hepatitis—and I’d been in Michigan; it wasn’t as if I’d even kissed anybody, or seriously wanted to; I got the virus from a state-mandated vaccination against a disease I’d already survived. For the next eighteen months I was too sick to work at anything, even the “creative” writing I’d been doing since age five. Then for another two or three years I still looked jaundiced, became temporarily asexual and permanently sterile…and by way of moral support from the church, I got accusations of having used LSD, which I never did or wanted to do. Talk about stress.  I talked to two psychologically trained counsellors, who were nice people and meant well and had nothing really useful to tell me, and I worked the everlovin’ daylights out of what I’d learned about the role of the mind in stress management. 

I could feel this program working for me, yes, at the time…to the extent that it does work. It reduced the emotional drama. That was nice. It did not reduce the daily cramps that radiated from the liver area up to my scalp and down to my toes. It had no effect whatsoever on the celiac gene that undoubtedly played some role in aggravating mono, or even viral hepatitis, while I had them. It did not keep me from fainting or otherwise displaying illness on jobs, whenever anybody took the chance of hiring me, and being fired from jobs for being ill. If it did anything to shorten the time before I was able to write anything that even I cared to read or save, or even read what I’d been reading and writing at university, I didn’t notice. Stress management was about the most useful concept being discussed in psychology in the 1980s, for me, and it wasn’t all that useful…

Well, that’s plenty from that chapter of my memories. (I wrote it all out in novel form, later; if anybody wants to publish the novel, let me know. It may be the last true Horatio Alger-type story in America.) I survived and, this being the 1980s when young people could thrive on odd jobs, I thrived. I recovered my health while, and possibly by, starting a business with a $25 investment, building it, and playing foster mother to a problem teenager along the way. These little mind games for stress management had become part of my life. They helped. They did not help as much as (1) simply outliving the virus infection, over the years, and (2) eventually realizing that I was still working a lot harder than other people did to achieve a lower level of wellness, because I was an undiagnosed celiac, and going gluten-free.

Diaphragm breathing can keep people from fainting if their blood pressure is low or having heart attacks if it’s high. Taking time out to concentrate on the things about which we naturally feel happy can keep discouragement from spiralling down into depression. And if you really want to be a cheerful person, without even thinking about it, there’s nothing like working out which kinds of food do and don’t feed a naturally eupeptic (cheerful) mood, and eating only the food that keeps you eupeptic.

So, if you feel stressed, by all means get a copy of this book and use it. Pelletier is a nice guy and deserves to know that he’s helped masses of people feel better than they would otherwise have been feeling. But, if you’re ill, don’t expect stress management to make you well, and, if your circumstances are miserable, don’t expect stress management to make you happy. Stress management will help you survive during times when the only way it’s possible to feel about your reality is bad; after you've survived, it will help you get back to feeling really good.

There is one point on which I completely disagree with this book—including “Smile” as a primary stress management technique. I would have said, “Laugh out loud, or, if it seems inappropriate to laugh out loud, chant or sing with vibrato, or just do a series of quick diaphragm-breaths to work the diaphragm muscle.” Two reasons:

(1) Working the diaphragm muscle seems to be what really activates the miraculous endorphin cycle. That’s why Dr. Lamaze told women who wanted to give birth with no anesthetics at all to “pant” rather than grin.

(2) As Luskin and Pelletier mention, there’s no healing benefit in just baring your teeth. The kind of smile that is associated—I believe as an effect more than as a cause—with the endorphin cycle is the kind where the eyes light up and the mouth may or may not even get into the act of looking-happy. Unfortunately, what we’ve heard during group photo sessions, and learned to do when we think “Smile,” is to bare our teeth. When people in a neutral, mellow, or mildly pleasant mood bare their teeth for group pictures, there’s no particular healing effect but at least they don’t ruin the picture. When people in a tense or hostile mood bare their teeth at other people, in a “nervous grin” or, worse, an attempt to “soften” or conceal the hostile message of their words and actions, the effect is about the ugliest, most hateful, most emotionally toxic effect anything less than physical violence could possibly have, on all the bodies concerned. I consistently advise anyone who wants to know about stress management, “If you have to think about what your face is doing, tell it to relax!” Even if you break down and cry, that’s less bad than the kind of “brickable smile” that, e.g., George H.W. Bush did when starting the Gulf War.

So…there’s a reason for that link to a book by Douglas Adams. If you want to manage stress, and aren’t already familiar with his work, he’s a writer worth discovering. Others are Dave Barry, P.J. O’Rourke, Laura Ingraham, Erma Bombeck, Matt Groening, Lynda Barry, and James Thurber. You’re reading this because you’re a book person, but if you also enjoy comedy videos, the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, and The Simpsons can also be taken as medicine.

Now, what about your aging heart?

Even before North Americans are full-grown, the news media tell us that it’s never too early to be mindful of the burdens our crowded, time-pressured, hurried, worried lifestyle places on our hearts. Young women are protected from hypertension for a few years after menopause, but are not exempt from other aspects of cardiovascular disease like diabetes and varicose veins. Young men…these days we’re hearing about the occasional nine-year-old boy having his first stroke or heart attack in primary school. So whoever you are, however young you are, your heart is aging and you need to protect it.

I happen to be in an ideal position to tell you how much stress management can do for your aging heart. In terms of cardiovascular health, I’m probably still getting some benefit from being only a few years into menopause; I’m definitely enjoying the benefits of regular exercise—because after all these years being too vain and too miserly to buy bigger clothes, I enjoy a good workout. Yet, along with the celiac gene, I inherited an odd couple of genes that keep my thyroid function within the normal range and yet—eccentric. Vulnerable. If I get my brisk walks in I can drink black coffee first thing in the morning and enjoy it; if I get lazy (this happened once, and I don’t intend to let it happen twice) I’m one of those people who can collapse in shock just from drinking black coffee before I’ve eaten something.

Recently I unknowingly passed by a place where poison had been sprayed beside the road. Within four hours my heart was pounding and fibrillating and palpitating like mad, little dark spots were floating before my eyes, my left hand was tingling, and pain was shooting all through the upper left quadrant of my body. This was not a “real” heart attack; it was the kind of dress rehearsal for a “real” heart attack that hyperthyroid people can have several times before real, even if atypical, heart disease sets in. Very scary, even though not fatal. Painful. Absolutely no fun at all. Although hyperthyroid people don’t usually die from the first dozen or so “mini” heart attacks, you never know; it’s possible.

So…I sat down and “went into alpha.” That’s a technical term for a refinement of the techniques discussed in this book under the headings of “Breathe” and “Slow Down.” (Beginners, who haven’t been meditating and exercising regularly, also use the “Tense To Relax” technique to get there, but with practice you can “go into alpha” in seconds, almost at will—and it’s useful to have practiced that ability before you have a heart attack, which, if it happens, will do the “tensing” for you.) Alpha refers to the brainwave pattern that can be measured in a biofeedback lab if you happen to have access to one. An easier way to tell when you’re there is to “levitate” one part of your body without tensing the muscle you normally use to lift it—by visualizing one arm, leg, hand, or foot rising and letting your less voluntary muscles raise it. In alpha you are fully conscious, able to refocus on external reality if necessary, but thoroughly relaxed and able to communicate with body processes that are normally unconscious. You can talk to your heart, if that’s the part of the body that needs attention. Once in alpha I used the technique discussed under “Visualize Success” to visualize, or, since I’m a writer, “audialize,” my mind talking with my heart: “You can stop all this banging about any time, y’know. Like now…right now would be good.”

And it did. The cardiac reaction wasn’t over, but it peaked and subsided instantly. My blood pressure returned to normal in seconds; my pulse rate followed in minutes. It really was sort of awesome. Many’s the time I’ve used these techniques to control pain and promote healing from an injury over the years, but controlling pulse and blood pressure is where they really excel. I’ve seen people in the 75-to-95-year-old range use them to keep a real stroke within the “mini” or “transient” range, and/or recover from the effects of a stroke if one happens…and now I’ve felt how they work.

So, yes, Stress Free for Good can be a first book about how to save your own life, if and when your aging heart ever suffers an “attack.” If you do have a heart attack, either the “real” kind from classic cardiovascular disease or the “mini” kind from hyperthyroidism, obviously that’s not good. Using stress management to slap your blood pressure down to where it belongs is first aid. If you can still talk to a doctor, doing that would be a very good idea. But here I stand to testify that stress management techniques will stop a “mini” heart attack, on a dime—which means they really are powerful methods to mitigate the damage a “real” stroke or heart attack does, too. 

If you’re not already familiar with stress management, here’s your chance to become familiar with it. Run don’t walk. There’s more to learn about alpha meditation and pain control than Stress Free for Good discusses explicitly, but now that you know to replace “smile” with “laugh,” all the basic techniques are in this book. You’ll learn a lot of what’s left to learn, intuitively, from a daily practice of these basic ten.

Both Luskin and Pelletier are still alive, active in medical research, and somewhat active in cyberspace, so Stress Free for Good is a Fair Trade Book. Buy it here for $5 per copy + $5 per package + $1 per online payment (if you pay by U.S. postal money order the post office will take care of its own surcharge), and we'll send 10% of the basic price, or $1 per copy, to Luskin or a charity of his choice. Throw in Mind as Healer Mind as Slayer, which will fit into the same package for a total price of $15 in real-world payment or $16 in online payment, to send $1 to Luskin and $1 to Pelletier.