For about 15 years I have wondered about something: why do I enjoy sitting in a casino, playing the same games for hours, even at a nickel at a time, when my chance of winning anything is less than none? And, why do I enjoy surfing the Web for hours every night, preferring this to reading a book or watching TV, or even doing something more productive like cleaning out closets?
I think I now understand. I’m trying to combat stress, which in the last couple of decades, has escalated, at least in my life.
I was reading on the Web about peripheral neuropathy, a condition I have had for several years as a complication of both a syndrome I have, hereditary spastic paraplegia, and diabetes, which I have had for several years but didn’t know I had. The neuropathy is very painful; in my case, it is a burning sensation but more of a cold burning sensation than a hot one. I also get a feeling of pins and needles on occasion, and sometimes get an intense itching up and down the nerves and cramps in the muscles of my legs and my feet. I have lost feeling in my toes and portions of my feet, and have a great deal of trouble keeping my balance when I walk. Going downstairs is very painful and dangerous; upstairs not so much. The pain is often troubling, and sometimes unbearable without medication. Medication, however, is often problematic: the cost of many drugs, such as Cymbalta® and other Serotonin–norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), is often so high, most insurance plans won’t cover the cost. Also, the side effects are serious, and include liver failure, neurological disturbances, sexual disturbances, sleep disturbances, etc. I didn’t have all those, but I did have some and worried about the others. So I went off the Cymbalta®.
Peripheral neuropathy has nothing to do with my love of casinos and the Internet.
But what I found out while looking for treatments, does.
The Benson Technique is a relaxation exercise that was designed by Dr. Herbert Benson to help people in chronic pain and stress to chill out.
Herbert Benson, M.D., is the Director Emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute (BHI), and Mind/Body Medical Institute Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School. A graduate of Wesleyan University and the Harvard Medical School, Dr. Benson is the author or co-author of more than 180 scientific publications and 12 books. His most recent book is Relaxation Revolution, now in paperback at Amazon.com for $7.99 and available in a Kindle® edition for $9.99. Benson came up with a technique years ago to treat stress, which he states is a leading cause of hypertension, heart disease, stroke, and other diseases and conditions in modern society. One phrase I read while surfing the net about this technique was “competitive relaxation.” At first, I thought these words were referring to a key part of the technique, which is distracting our minds from stressful thoughts. When we are distracted, our minds can no longer think about our problems. Instead, the technique “competes” with the stressors and replaces them, so that the stressors are blocked. But I misread it. The passage I was looking over was talking about competitive athletes using the technique before a game or race. However, I decided I liked the phrase, and decided to think of Benson’s technique as “Competitive Relaxation.”
I also had an insight into why I enjoy the repetitive, mind-emptying job of playing a slot machine or playing a game on the Internet – It was a distraction. Some distractions can be worse than the stress they replace, however. For example, casino gambling can cripple a person financially and cause horrendous harm to people who get hooked. You can never count on beating a game that is mathematically calculated to take your money. And the longer you play, the more your chances of loss. People who play casino games for competitive relaxation will lose the most, because they play the longest. Even though I’m careful not to play more than I can afford to lose, which these days means playing almost solely with the comped money on my casino card and walking out when it is gone, I play until it is gone. More than once I have won several hundred dollars playing on the $75 I get at a certain casino every week – only to put it all back before I leave. So, this behavior is likely to cause more stress.
The Internet is also a problem. I find myself surfing at night, reading blogs and news articles, or doing library research for my dissertation, and distracting myself until I go to bed exhausted. It is a good thing that Internet gambling is almost impossible in this country, because if it were widely available, people would be doing that instead of going to the casinos. Some people get hooked on other Internet distractions – I’m glad I’m not one of those. But I also now understand why, as a child, I read all the time. When I am absorbed in a book, I’m totally absorbed. I tune out everything. Probably because I was raised in a huge family of loud people, I had to learn to tune out or go nuts. But I’ve always been a nervous wreck in a crowd.
And now, Benson’s Technique comes along. Surprisingly, it works.
Here it is:
First, you focus on your breathing. Breathe in, and out, slowly. Don’t hyperventilate. Then, when you get that down, close your eyes and imagine yourself on a beach, where the waves are coming in and out. Now have the waves match your breathing – for example, breathe in and the wave comes in; breathe out and the wave goes out. Then add a third thing: in your mind, say a word, such as R E L A X, over and over, slowly in time with the breaths. Do this for 15 minutes or so, until you learn to use it several times a day to relieve stress, lower your blood pressure, and increase your feeling of overall wellbeing. A person can use any scene they want in place of the beach; the main thing is to have a visualization that will work with the breathing and the vocalization of the word.
Benson also promotes other methods, including walking or jogging, repetitive exercise, meditation, and any hobby we might enjoy, such as gardening, music, reading, etc., as a part of this technique. I notice he doesn’t include common human distractions like casinos, the Internet, and pornography. He also doesn’t include things people do to put excitement and flavor into their lives, such as taking drugs, smoking, drinking, shoplifting, shopping, and having illicit affairs. Probably because all of these activities have probable disastrous side effects, much as many legal drugs have. But it is easy to see how people could self-medicate with these less-desirable behaviors, and it helps me understand myself.
So, people, the next time you get stressed, go the beach! Breathe! And Relax!