WHEN a person who has always appeared to be fairly well-balanced suddenly breaks down and goes to pieces, it is natural to ask what went wrong. Nervous illnesses are exceedingly common. Sometimes they are the result of sorrow and disappointment. These usu ally clear up without any serious consequences once the crisis has passed.
But there are times when the individual may have been ill for years, perhaps all his life. His reactions may never have been entirely normal. Things have seemed to go against him. He never has a chance to develop as a normal person, able to meet the stress and strain of living.
This naturally raises the question of what is normal. Actions that may be entirely normal for one person may be quite inappropriate in another. This is true even in the same individual at different times of life. What is perfectly normal in childhood is often quite out of place in later life. There is a norm for any given age. When we go beyond that limit, something is wrong.
Yet even here we can be easily misled. For regardless of how we may feel about others, most of us are quite sure we are perfectly normal ourselves! No doubt this is why we are told to "judge not." We have only our own limited experience to guide us. It is hazardous to draw too many hard and fast conclusions. We could be entirely wrong in our impressions of those who are nervous.
There are far too many amateur psychologists around, trying to classify those around them into various groups. Doctors who are highly trained in handling nervous disorders shun any such hard and fast classification of patients. There are no such distinct lines. One condition often blends into another without any definite boundary line. This means that the treatment of each patient must be on an individual basis. What may serve well in one case could be useless or even dangerous in an other.
There are more than a hundred different mental and nervous disorders that we know of and have labeled. Any one of these may greatly affect a per son's behavior. Changes in the blood vessels, especially during the later years of life, may profoundly affect the individual's mental reactions. Anything that interferes with the nutrition of the brain may result in a loss of normal reasoning powers and good judgment.
Head injuries and brain tumors may change a person's reactions to life. Vita min deficiencies and malnutrition also alter a person's thinking. Any infectious disease, especially when there is a high fever, will influence a person's behavior to a marked extent. A failing kidney will so increase the level of poisons in the blood that he will begin to see pink elephants and all kinds of nonexistent things. Alcohol is the most common cause of trouble in this respect.
Stress of Growing Up
All these conditions are largely physical in their origin. There are many more that seem to arise from entirely different causes. The stress and strain of growing up often places an added bur den on a young personality. Parents expect a child to be dependent. Yet the child must gradually separate himself from them if he is ever to grow up and take his place in the world as an individual in his own right. Too much protection may make the child overly dependent. He may become shy and overanxious. On the other hand, he may become angry and belligerent, and his behavior may become uncontrollable. All of these reactions are, of course, abnormal.
Even more serious is the child who is withdrawn and silent. An attitude of isolation does not lead to healthy growth and development. Such a child may be deeply disturbed. He may be withdrawing from others and building a little world of his own. In the end he may come to regard other people as his enemies, and if he is pushed too far, it is likely that he may become dangerous to others.
Why are all children so different in their reactions to the world around them? Some seem to fit into society with perfect ease. Others are less able to do this. Such differences may be seen even among the members of the same family. Many different factors go into the makeup of a personality. First, there are those things we have inherited. Upon these many other forces are brought to bear. We are surrounded by brothers, sisters, playmates, parents, and teachers. We are often guided unconsciously by their different points of view. Many conflicting ideas pass through our minds, shaping our approach to life. We have practically no control over most of these earlier impressions.
As time goes on, we become subject to diseases, accidents, sorrows, disappointments, and frustrations. We either come to respect life for what it is, or may be come cynical and bitter because of dis appointed hopes. All this begins early in life. It has a profound effect upon our whole nature. We either learn to respect the laws of the land or not, according to how we have been treated as children by our teachers and parents.
All of these complex forces shape and mold a person's thinking. We react ac cording to our own feelings in the matter. Some revel in conflict, others try to hide from having to make any decisions of their own. With some people marriage is one long series of arguments that are never settled. With others it is a blind obedience to the wishes of a domineering husband, wife, or mother-in-law. All of this may build up resentments that eventually lead to mental and physical illness.
Some children are more sensitive than others. They are probably born that way. If a sensitive child is placed under too much strain, he may try to cover his feelings in various ways. He may re treat into a world of fantasy and day dreams. This may be the beginning of abnormal behavior in later life. Or he may repress his true feelings and refuse to admit that they exist. This is often the beginning of hysteria.
Among the many different nervous disorders there are some that continually appear among large numbers of people everywhere. They are widely different in their effects upon the individual. We shall consider several of the more common conditions that fall into this category.
The hypochondriac is a person who is continually preoccupied with some supposed disease or defect in his body. He usually diagnoses his own ills and prescribes all kinds of treatment for them. He just loves taking pills and injections. He is busy swallowing tonics, sedatives, laxatives, antacids, and such like. His supposed illness usually has nothing to do with what he is-trying to treat.
How do people get like this in the first place? Everyone is taught in early child hood to take pride in his normal body functions. If he is oversensitive, he will soon begin to worry about them, watching for any slight change, regardless of how small. When in later life he passes through some period of emotional strain, he will often turn his mind back to his normal bodily functions.
Problems of digestion and elimination naturally head the list. He reads all the literature he can find on his chosen topic, particularly the folklore and unproved theories of others like himself. In spite of all his attempts at self-medication, he becomes weaker and less able to stand the stress of normal living. He is suffering from a severe neurosis that is affecting both his mind and his body. There is usually no basis for his fears concerning himself, but it is difficult for him to accept such an explanation.
There are some people who complain of always feeling tired and worn out. Perhaps there is some physical reason for this, such as anemia or heart dis ease. More often there is no physical cause to account for the strange condition. Every test proves to be negative. When this is the case, the fatigue is probably due to some deep emotional factor of which the patient may not be fully aware. This is a form of neurosis.
Such people tend to avoid all normal functions and social activities. They prefer to live a hermit's existence, shut away from all but a few friends whom they seldom see. This neurotic trend may come on early in life. In some cases an individual has been brought up to believe he must not overexert himself. He is no doubt following the example of parents who also felt chronically tired.
But the patient may not be tired be cause of any physical reason. The trouble could arise from emotional factors that he himself does not recognize. Such a condition often follows a period of overwork and insufficient rest. It can also arise from prolonged anxiety, frustration, and discouragement. He may then use his feelings to gain sympathy.
Merely resting will not cure the patient who is continually "tired." He can be helped only as he begins to under stand his true condition. It is important for him to assume his real responsibilities in life once again. In other words, he must quit feeling sorry for himself and find an entirely new way of living.
However, it should be pointed out that these people are genuinely tired and fatigued even though the cause may be emotional in nature. They are experiencing real fatigue because of a conflict within themselves. This conflict makes the person feel inadequate and lacking in strength. Certainly there are many instances where fatigue is used as a means of gaining sympathy. But such fatigue may also be an expression of anxiety or depression, both of which will only increase the feeling of fatigue.
The most important treatment in such conditions is to remove the anxiety which is at the root of all the trouble. A frank discussion of the patient's personal life is often beneficial. The emotional conflicts should be brought out into the open where they can be clearly seen and understood. People who have never suffered from such conflicts can rarely understand that these things will make a person ill. Unfortunately, the patient can often do little to help him self. The only solution is to find an entirely new approach to life. To turn to the great source of all healing—the One who promises, "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matt. 11:28).