Health columnist Jane Brody discusses stress.
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GUEST: Jane Brody
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. My guest today is Jane Brody, the extraordinary personal health columnist of The New York Times. And I use the descriptive “extraordinary” not just because Jane Brody’s Nutrition Book has been on the best-selling lists for so long now, and because this impressive volume that she has subtitled “A Lifetime Guide to Good Eating for Better Health and Weight Control” is quite so insightful and helpful in a n area of personal health that plagues so many of us, but also because e Ms. Brody‘s many fascinating newspaper articles about the physical and the mental problems of everyday life hit home so hard and so well. Indeed, while Jane Brody’s last visit to THE OPEN MIND was provoked by a brilliant article on type “A” and type “B” personality types, I’ve asked her here today because of her similarly provocative recent column on stress, and as she put it, “on whether to flee or to fight”. Now obviously her helpful article struck a responsive chord for me because of my own quota of stress. But I suspect that I’m not alone.
Anyway, Jane Brody, thanks for joining me here today on THE OPEN MIND. You know, when you appeared on the last program of THE OPEN MIND we were talking about personality types “A” and “B”, and you had indicated that you had worked hard and had been somewhat successful at giving up some of the habits of personality type “A”. You bustled in here late into the studio…
HEFFNER: …and I keep reading gall of these articles, one after another, one more interesting than the next. And I wonder how do you possibly claim to be able to handle stress in your own life?
BRODY: Well, it’s really quite easy when you put your mind to it. First of all, you have to have a safety valve. And for me, the main safety valve is exercise. I get in my daily exercise virtually every morning and every evening. And instead of taking a cab here and being aggravated by the traffic at rush hour, I walked. And I dissipated some of the stress of my workday as well s not having to deal with added stress of somebody else’s traffic jam.
HEFFNER: You know, it puzzles me. I don’t mean to be too questioning or challenging on this, but you write so much about science – and I think you’re probably the best darned science writer I’ve read. Then in the questions of personality type “A” and “B” and the question of stress, you almost seem to abandon science for these little homilies and these little home cures. Is that a fair observation?
BRODY: Well, it may seem like home cures, but you know something, grandmother was right about lots of things. And some of our basic home remedies make a tremendous amount of sense. We are just discovering, for example, that exercise, which anyone who does it will tell you helps to relieve tension, actually stimulates the release in your brain of the body’s own morphine, called endorphin. It’s like taking a Valium, only you don‘t have the side effects of the drug.
HEFFNER: And you recommend it. And you recommend other of these little nice things to do. And you sort of say we’ve always known what to do about them. You talk about organizing your time, about trying clean living. And really it’s that that makes me think, my gosh, it can’t be that simple.
HEFFNER: All these lovely little things.
BRODY: Well, but it’s true. If you end up skipping meals, eating erratically, grabbing a bite here and a bit there, your body isn’t going to be able to handle the stresses of ordinary life. You will succumb. You will get sick. You get colds, you get aches and pains and what-have-you. These things just don’t happen to me. I don’t, there are two things I don’t cheat on. I don’t cheat on my meals, and I don’t cheat on my exercise. And then everything else seems to fall into place. I program my time. I schedule in my work time, my play time. And I make sure that I have those safety valves. And instead of having to deal with competing activities all the time – should I do this, should I do that – I know in advance what I’m going to do, and I know in advance where is the loophole of my life so that if something unexpected comes up I can drop everything and do something spontaneous without feeling stressed or guilty about it.
HEFFNER: Well, how do you address the problem – and I’m positive there must have been a great many people who wrote to you after this particular piece on stress appeared – I was thinking about the air controllers. I was thinking about the statement that they live such a stressful life in terms of their occupation. I was thinking about all the people who talk about Wall Street, who talk about people in the defense industries, who talk about people in Washington and other political positions. We seem to live in a society that puts its premium upon stress positions. Why then, write about these nice little things to do when you’re stressed?
BRODY: Well, one of the most interesting things I discovered in the course of doing this – and I should have realized this on my own – but researchers have rally focused on the fact that people self-select their level of stress. And you wouldn’t expect a laid-back person who is easily, you know, put in to a knot to go into air traffic controlling, because they would die in three weeks probably under the strain of having to monitor 14 planes in the air anytime, you know, they may come too close to one another you fall apart. The person like that doesn’t go into that kind of business. And just like somebody like me would not enjoy a very causal easygoing existence. I chose a job that has deadlines. I chose a job that changes every other day, even sometimes twice in one day.
HEFFNER: Has lots of stress built in?
BRODY: It has stress built in. But all stress is not negative. All stress doesn’t have a bad effect on you. If you are the personality type that enjoys that level of activity and demand upon you, you would be more stressed being told to slow down and being forced to slow down. And it is just as stressful to take a racehorse and make him behave like a turtle as it would be to take the turtle and make him run as fast as a racehorse.
HEFFNER: But you know, seemingly what we’re all concerned about is the, well, are the physiological effects, and the mental effects, too, of stress and our reactions to it. Do you think we shorten our lives by dealing with stress other than in the kind of laid-back way you suggest that we deal with it?
BRODY: Uh hum, uh hum.
HEFFNER: Does stress shorten our lives?
BRODY: Well, there’s certainly a lot of evidence to suggest that that kind of tension syndrome that produces hormones that close up blood vessels, that irritate the lining of the intestinal tract, the stomach, and produce lots of stomach acid which leads to your ulcer problem, yes, that can shorten your life. And it is the flight or flee – I’m sorry – fight-or-flee syndrome that’s a problem. But every time you have to confront that on a situation where you shouldn’t – for example, you’ve just missed a subway train. You can either take that as an opportunity to peruse the surroundings, maybe do some people-watching, read a newspaper, fantasize, or you can say, “Darn it, you know, I had to get home. I’m late. Now I’m going to be late”, and produce the clenching reaction internally that is so damaging to your body’s organs.
HEFFNER: It’s interesting that you said you started off on this track by being aware of the headaches you were getting from clenching your teeth out of the reactions to the stressful situation. That’s when you stopped reacting in a way that you had clenched your teeth.
BRODY: It was a fascinating thing for me, because it started out I woke up one morning from a nightmare and I had, my jaw was just locked, and I had a headache. And I said to myself, “”Gee, I wonder if that may be causing those headaches that I wake up with”. And I thought about it some more. And then two days later I was writing an article on deadline, and at the end of that article I had a headache. And I realized that I had had my jaw locked through that entire experience. I mean, I could talk, but whenever I wasn’t talking it was like that. And as the days wore on I realized I did it in so many different circumstances: chopping onions for the stew, concentrating on anything, threading a needle. And I would close the jaw. Now, when that went over a prolonged period of time, the muscles, the tension on the muscles in my face precipitated a headache. And I was able to stop that reaction most of the time by simply becoming intensely and acutely aware of the circumstances under which I do it.
HEFFNER: I said to you before we went on the air or started the program that after you were here before and indicated how you felt one could control one’s behavior to the extent that you abandoned a little bit of the “A” behavior and embraced a little bit of the “B” behavior, and now in terms of what you’re saying about stress, you’re going to live forever if you learn how to do all these things.
BRODY: (Laughter) If I don’t get run over by a truck, right?
HEFFNER: Oh, well, don’t tell me you’re going to worry about that. That’s another stress. But talking about things to worry about, I was most taken by the fact that at the same time, obviously that you were working on the stress piece, or just about the same time, you came out with another piece on “The Effects of Beauty Found to Run Surprisingly Deep”. And you talk about the fact, as the subhead goes, “Attractive people are perceived as more poised, sensitive, sincere, intelligent and successful than others”. Now that’s quite a load to carry if a person genetically, by birth, by whatever, is just not as attractive physically as another person, which must add to stress which can’t really be relieved by counting people in a subway station or becoming familiar with things you hadn’t thought about before.
BRODY: Well, what you can do – and this, we’re talking about a societal stereotype, believes certain things about attractive people. And it’s sort of a built-in cultural phenomenon that we believe that attractive people are going to be more successful, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But attraction and attractiveness is very much what’s inside you. And if you think that you’re attractive, if you have a good self-image, you tend to behave more like an attractive person. And one of the experiments I cite in that article is of a telephone conversation between a man and woman, neither of whom had seen each other, and the man was told that he was talking to either an attractive woman or an unattractive woman, or a less attractive woman. The woman didn’t know anything about what the man was told. Independent observers analyzed a tape recording of their conversation and rated the individuals participation in this conversation of either being of like an attractive person or like an unattractive person. And the interesting thing was that when the man thought he was talking to an attractive woman, the woman talked as if she was attractive, whether she really was or not. And so he was enhancing her self-image because he thought she was pretty, and she responded like a pretty woman. Now this can happen to anybody, whether you really are attractive or not. If you feel good about yourself then people then respond to you in that fashion.
HEFFNER: Certainly we learn that about dealing with our children…
BRODY: Um hum.
HEFFNER: …that if we deal with them in a very, very positive fashion, they respond to the positive aspects of what it is we have to say, our attitudes, our smiles, our acceptance, rather than our rejection. But I keep coming back, would come back to this question of, if we live in a society that puts its premium upon good looks, upon attractiveness – and we do – what incredible stress that must put upon all the rest of us…
HEFFNER: …who are not attractive. And I wonder whether that doesn’t fit into the category of those things that don’t succumb to exercise and to the other very nice modalities of doing away with the stress that you talked about.
BRODY: Well, certainly if you try and try and try and don’t succeed, and you have no explanation for why you don’t succeed, then what the real truth is that you’re not succeeding is because you’re simply not attractive enough, that indeed would be very stressful because you have nothing to account for your failures, and so you assume that it must be something awful about yourself, that you must not be a good person. Because people don’t think in terms of whether they’re pretty or not or attractive or not or handsome or not as to why they haven’t succeeded under certain circumstances when they’ve done all the right things to make success happen.
HEFFNER: Well, that’s the point you make and which I was quite taken with. When you said, if you try to hide from someone their less attractive physical qualities, then they have to attribute whatever failures may stem from our society’s rejection of unattractiveness, they have to attribute those to qualities that are deeper.
BRODY: That’s right. I think what we need to do is simply be more honest with ourselves and recognize the fact that how you look does make a difference. But remember that no matter how your face is structured or your body is put together there are things that you can do about it to make yourself look more attractive. The way you carry yourself, the way you smile, the way you dress, the way you speak, all is part of your attractiveness or lack of attractiveness.
HEFFNER: How about simply rejecting the whole notion that one can be judged by one’s physical appearance? Isn’t that a safer way out?
BRODY: Well, you can reject it, but that’s sort of like putting your head in the sand, because the truth is it happens. People form first impressions upon seeing you, and those first impressions sometimes carry into later impressions. But I don’t think that ignoring that fact is helpful. I think that acting upon it and acknowledging it and realizing that it’s not because you’re not a good person that so-and-so doesn’t like you. Let’s face it, lost of unattractive people have very happy lives and meet sometimes very attractive people who marry them or who hire them, and they do very well. But you know, you mentioned something about the stress of being unattractive.
HEFFNER: Uh hum.
BRODY: Some of the letters I got were about the stress of being too attractive.
HEFFNER: How so?
BRODY: You know, what is bad about being beautiful? What is bad is that you are expected to have all the se attributes of poise and sensitivity and sincerity and intelligence and success. And what if you don’t? What if you can’t live up to society’s image? On the other hand, some – especially for women this is so, attractive women – are assumed not to need to go anywhere with the rest of their lives. I got a letter from a woman whose Ph.D. advisor said, “What do you need a Ph.D. for? You’re a beautiful woman. Just go home and be beautiful”.
HEFFNER: That sounds like rather old hat, doesn’t it?
BRODY: It does sound like old hat, but she was no old chick. She was a young woman who was just trying to get her degree and felt constantly that she was not taken seriously in life because she was pretty and she didn’t need to be professionally successful as well.
HEFFNER: You know, let me go back a moment to a point that I raised before. And I’m not satisfied that I raised it well, and I don’t know whether you care to deal with it. And that is the question of, if you’re subject to these stresses, and if the self-fulfilling prophecy of unattractiveness burdens you, and if stress generally rides on you, as you suggest it can’t if you’re going to be healthy and happy, doesn’t it require a rather more profound self-searching, a kind of not necessarily an involvement in psychoanalysis, but something more profound than the homilies?
BRODY: Yes. There’s a very interesting book that I recommend in the column called “Kicking Your Stress Habits”. And it’s published by a group called Whole Persons Associates in Duluth, Minnesota. And what the book does, which is more than I’ve seen in most other books about stress reduction, is it starts out with who you are and what you want out of life. What are your values and how do your activities fit into that value system? You know, have your priorities been upside down? Or are you being pulled in every which direction and resenting much of it because you really don’t want to do it because it isn’t important t to you anyway? And so sit back. And it is this kind of self-analysis. The book gives you a step-by-step process by which you can evaluate who you are and what you want and what you’re doing, and see how well these things mesh and figure out what to throw away. One of the simplest suggestions, for example, on a menial scale, is when you – I face a huge mailbox of mail every single day, and I can either get exercised and crazy about all of this stuff, or I can do what this fellow says in this book, and that is to put the mail into three piles. One is very important, has to be dealt with immediately. One is important, but it can be done some other time. And the third is unimportant. The first thing you do is throw away the unimportant. And then you do the immediately, and you put aside, put away the stuff that can be done later, and then proceed with the rest of your day. And it’s wonderful to see how easy that is in something like sorting mail. You can sort your life the same way and your values and your priorities and all the activities of your life.
HEFFNER: You replied to a question that I asked about going more deeply…
BRODY: Uh hum.
HEFFNER: …into one’s, into the personality or the psyche that responds to stress as it does, by recommending again some more of these little how-to measures. I gather you really do feel that way, that for a very big chunk of stress you can work out these day-by-day little handle-it-yourself, do-it-yourself ways.
BRODY: Well, you see, what is your personality? Your personality is a reflection of how you think. And one of the things you’re told to do here is rethink what you think, how you respond to a challenge.
HEFFNER: You’re a wonderful Skinnerian. You’re really determined that you’re going to master your own fate this way, and you don’t get very much involved in what others would have called deeper psychic problems. I gather that’s your approach, anyway.
BRODY: That’s true. I am very behaviorally oriented. And my own experience and my husband’s experience – and I’ve seen him go through similar kinds of changes – has been that you can change your behavior first and then have an interesting reaction. The inside of you changes along with the change in your behavior.
HEFFNER: I gather too, from reading your nutrition book, from the fact that so many, many, many others have been reading it, that you feel that stress plays a role in one’s inability to eat well and to lose weight and to have better health.
BRODY: Well, certainly if you use the tensions of your life as an excuse to drown your sorrows and your anxieties in food, you’re going to have a hard time controlling your weight, and you’re going to have a hard time eating the right foods, because what people tend to reach for under stress are the potato chips and the cookies and the globs of ice cream and al the other junk food, the candy bar midafternoon to relieve that tension of work, or the pick-me-up, the coffee, the constant round of something shoved in the mouth, the cigarettes.
HEFFNER: Is there any indication that as stress has increased in our way of life that overweight problems have increased too?
BRODY: It’s certainly true that Americans are getting fatter. And despite this plethora of fad diets – I mean, we have lived now through three decades of total diet madness – we are fatter than we have ever been in the history of America.
HEFFNER: Why do you call it “madness”, “diet madness”?
BRODY: Because what we are seeing now is practically monthly the publication of yet another distorted, crazy scheme to lose weight that sells millions of copies in some cases to poor Americans who have tried every other one that’s come along and failed. And they all fail. The reason they fail is because you cannot stay on them for the rest of your life. And what I’ve tried to do in Jane Brody’s Nutrition Book is outline an eating plan and a weight-control plan that is a lifetime plan, because you don’t just want to lose weight for your daughter’s wedding or for your college reunion or because you’re applying for a new job. You want to lose weight for yourself for the rest of your life. And you don‘t want to feel deprived and crazy and unable to live in a normal world because you have a weight problem, because you have to stay on somebody’s crazy diet scheme. You want to be able to eat like other people eat.
HEFFNER: But look, if you were – I can’t take exception with what you say, particularly since you say it so well and you write it so well – but just between the two of us, given what you do know about the course of our history in this decade and the increase of weight problem san the increase of stress, what do you anticipate really will happen in the course of this century?
BRODY: Well, one of the things that’s happening already is this explosion of exercise, which I think should be a dietary requirement. I don’t think we can get through this life very well – we can’t eat properly and we can’t live properly – without expending some of that nervous energy as it were. The body, the human species evolved on the move. We did not evolve sitting in a chair for 12 hours a day, going home, sitting down to have dinner, and then sitting in front of the television set, and they lying down to go to sleep. That is not how our species came into being. And that’s not how everything about our metabolism evolved while we were running about and walking and constantly doing things, physical things. So I think what we are seeing here is we’ve got somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 to 100 million Americans doing something physical on a regular basis.
HEFFNER: Any indication that the growth of exercise has turned us away from the growth of fatty tissue?
BRODY: Well, I don’t know that nay recent surveys have shown that. But what I do know is that for the first time in this century the incidence of heart disease and deaths from heart disease have begun to decline. And something is making that happen. Exercise has got to be one of the factors, because not only does it help to process the fats that we eat and keep those fats from clogging up our blood vessels, but it also helps reduce high blood pressure which is a major cause of heart disease in this country. So we have a safety valve built into our culture now that I think more and more people will be taking advantage of.
HEFFNER: Is there a downside to this statistic of less death by heart disease?
BRODY: With an increase in something else, you mean?
HEFFNER: Yeah, seriously.
BRODY: There hasn’t been. There hasn’t been. The cancer death rate has been increasing for decades by about one percent a year. And nothing different has happened since heart disease has dropped off. So we don’t see that commensurate. What we are seeing is an increase in our life expectancy. And that’s why, that’s why that book is so important. And that’s why what I‘m talking about here is so important. Because we’re going to be around here for longer than our grandparents. And we want those years to be good years.
HEFFNER: And I don’t want to feel stress about thinking about hose extra years.
And thank you so much for joining me today, Jane Brody.
And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you, too, will join us here again on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.