SAN MARCOS — For Daisy Dowden, a friendly English war bride with seven grown children, taking a stress class was not a casual decision.
"It was essential! I've been a nervous Nellie all my life," Dowden, 62, said. "I had open-heart surgery last year, and every time I go in for a checkup, the nurse who takes my blood pressure tells me, 'Daisy, calm down.' "
In January, Dowden discovered Richard (Ben) Benson's stress class at the San Marcos clinic of the North County Health Service.
"Now I've got signs up all over my house," she said of the class as her nine fellow students were assembling. (Stress classes work best if they are kept small.)
Anything Positive Works
One of her signs says, "Watch Your Thoughts." Another says "Breathe." A third states, "I Can Handle It." There's also one--Benson urges students to put up anything if it helps them to keep a positive attitude--that she saw on a neighbor's wall in England. That one says: "Don't Bloody Worry. There's Another Day Tomorrow."
"People who put up signs do much better than those who don't," Benson said.
Behind him, more signs, listing 21 things that help people feel tranquil, were pinned to the green wall. "For most of us, unless we have constant reminders, the mind slips easily into a negative way of thinking," he said.
A tall, calm, peaceful man, Benson, 40, is a biofeedback consultant. Since 1983, he has been on the staff of North County Health Services, a county-run agency that has seven medical clinics around San Diego County.
Biofeedback is the use of instruments to monitor and to regulate stress levels in the mind and body.
"Most people now are aware that stress damages and ages the body," Benson said. "But when patients are hooked up to a biofeedback machine for the first time, they're often astonished to discover just how much influence their thoughts have on their stress level."
Some people seem blessed with an naturally optimistic disposition, he said. You don't see this type very often in doctor's offices, or hanging around pharmacies waiting for prescriptions for high blood pressure, insomnia or headaches.
Attitude the Key in Controlling Stress
"Your attitude, the way you see life, is the most important factor in controlling stress," he said.
Stress specialist Dr. Joseph Spear of the Spear Clinic at La Costa knows the importance of managing stress. "There is far more awareness now, in both the public and the medical profession, of the damage stress can do," he said.
Because of the recognition that everything from digestive upsets and skin rashes to insomnia and fatigue may be caused by stress, Spear said, a whole new medical field called psycho-immunology is emerging.
"It emphasizes that people can do a great deal for themselves," he said. "Their attitude about what happens to them is the important thing."
Benson can certainly empathize with anyone feeling overwhelmed by life's stresses. He himself developed both ulcers and migraine headaches while he was with the Marines in Vietnam. At one point he owned a rock music club and restaurant, in which he worked frenetic 16-hour days.
"I used to be a very tense person," he said, smiling. "Now, I go home to my house on a half-acre in Leucadia and my dog and cat. A girlfriend--she's a chiropractor--and I go for long walks on the beach. I love the life I'm leading."
Benson's first guest speaker for the class that evening was Hal Lingerman, who arrived carrying his portable stereo. Lingerman, coordinator of the seven counseling departments of the clinics, is also author of the book "The Healing Energies of Music."
As the gentle flutes and strings of a Baroque piece of music flooded the room, he asked the class, "Does this make you want to hit anybody?"
There was general laughter. Reasons for taking the class varied among the 10 students. Two were coping with the stress of an illness in the family. Several had doctors who recommended the class.
Millie Virtree, who works at the Vista Post Office, said that, while most of her regular customers are "lovely people," if anyone wants to see stressful working conditions, they should hang around the lobby of a post office.
Stressful Sounds of Rock Music
Lingerman switched the music suddenly--to the thump, thump, da-thump of loud rock music. The anapestic beat of this kind of music, with two short, unstressed counts followed by one long, stressed count, can be addicting, Lingerman contends.
The students--the youngest of whom was 29--were wincing visibly at the noise.
"Tests show," Lingerman continued, shouting to make himself heard above the music, "that kids who listen constantly to an anapestic beat are more aggressive. Easily irritated. They don't function well in school because it causes poor memory. It can also stimulate the genital area."
There was an audible sigh of relief when Lingerman switched to choral music, followed by a piece as soothing as the sound of water running down a hillside--Vaughan Williams' "Lark Ascending."