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How To Fight Mental Fatigue

As we point out in at the end of this article, there are definite symptoms of mental fatigue. The victim of fatigue or “overwork” almost always lacks clear and exact sensations. There is no unity or peace in his intellectual concentration. His will is undecided or wavering. His feelings or his emotions are abnormally exaggerated. By re-education in the use of these four powers we can either cure him outright, or at least help him to cure himself.

If we do not all need this re-education, yet we can greatly profit by it. For feelings sometimes master us all. We are then sad and dispirited, bothered and impatient. We do not know how to control ourselves. We feel aversions and repugnances, attractions and inclinations which we should indeed control. But they drag us even further away from duty. “I am very sensitive, very nervous; I have too much feeling,” we hear many say in order to defend or excuse their faults. They should really say, “I do not have much control of my sense impressions or feelings or emotions.”

Now to govern feelings we must first control our ideas. The idea itself precedes and inclines us to the act. And acts and ideas both modify feelings. Like steam in the boiler of a locomotive, feelings are a chaotic force. Our ideas and will are the engineer who uses and directs it. So we must control those ideas. Now there are very many people who do not know what they are thinking about, or cannot think about what they wish, because they surrender to continued distractions in study, work and meditation. What unnecessary fatigue! What lost energy because of mental drifting and dallying! Yet they could perhaps be great inventors, artists, saints, if they would learn to concentrate their intellectual forces and will power upon an ideal. How many persons really want something? Perhaps they think they want something, but they do not carry out their plans because they make no real act of the will. They do not know how to use that sublime and immense force which we call “will power”.

There are also many who do not know how to be happy even in the lowest and most fundamental degree of enjoying mental rest in a good night's sleep. And when awake they have no concept of the tranquil and completely conscious sensations which could be theirs. These can be had by communicating with and possessing the objective goodness and beauty of the good God's external world.

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Hence we shall explain how to re-educate and strengthen our receptive power through conscious sensations and voluntary acts. Relaxation and peace will be an automatic result. Then whether our thoughts are about things sensible or spiritual, concrete or abstract, we shall be masters of them. We shall be able to think when we wish and of what we wish, as well as withdraw our attention from what bothers or harms us. And this control of attention will be the means of re-educating our productive power.

When we can finally think freely of the good or the act we want to perform, we shall be able to desire it in earnest. Then we may pass easily and freely to its execution, even when under the influence of repugnance or subconscious fear. In other words we shall have mental control, we shall become again rational men, masters of ourselves, not slaves of irrational impulses. At the end of this article there is an outline diagram of the symptoms, causes and remedies for fatigue or overwork. Pause here to take a preliminary glance at it. We do not pretend that our very short diagram explains all the symptoms, causes and cures for mental fatigue or weakness. Nor do we mean to set the boundaries of the physical and spiritual, which are so often glimpsed but confusedly.

To comprehend Mental Fatigue or Weakness better a good procedure will be to enter into the psychology of victims of the illness by listening to their own description of it. Unfortunately in the accelerated life of our age these victims are legion. They are recruited daily and not very often found among intellectual or affective non-entities. For these latter do not usually have the exuberance of mental life that is a prerequisite of swinging to an extreme and losing control. More often we see them among thinkers, writers and men of parts, among persons of exquisite sensibilities, among ambitious and talented students. How many lecturers, writers and professors of international fame have in our day been struck down by “over-work ”. Newton, for example, admitted that he could not work more than two hours a day. Even Dr. Vittoz, the psychotherapist, began by curing himself. And so it should not be a shameful or depressing thing to declare oneself mentally fatigued.

“At the age of twenty,” a student describes himself, “despite an insatiable love of books, I suddenly found it impossible for me to study. Ten minutes of reading or writing brought on the most distressing feeling of fatigue. There was pain and more frequently, a feeling of heat around the head and eyes. I simply could not drive off this sensation and concentrate on other ideas. A confusing succession of thoughts so oppressed me that I did not know how to control them. They were usually sad memories of the past or painful anticipations of future misfortunes. They were sometimes so burdensome that I could not wholly drive them away by seeking refuge in conversation, walking or even manual labor. The most intimate part of my soul seemed split in two. I felt as if another part of me were overcoming the conscious part of me. Gradually I sank into discouragement, worry, feelings of inferiority and indecision. At times there was swift transition from optimism to pessimism, from joy to sadness, without any objective cause. I was on an open road to all sorts of phobias, fear of appearing in public, incipient dizzy spells and scruples of conscience.”

“A little later I fell prey to insomnia. My time of rest brought me no true repose. My sleep was interrupted by dreams and nightmares. When I got up I would find that I was more tired than when I went to bed. The illness and my sadness increased, yet those closest to me misunderstood it. When they saw me apparently strong and physically robust, some diagnosed that the illness came from my imagination. Others more charitably, but not more scientifically, tried to persuade me to do what I so anxiously wished to do, that is, not to be worried, not to be absent-minded, not to fear, to control myself. But they did not show me how to do it. It was as if you were to advise a person suffering from a fit of coughing or vomiting simply not to cough, not to vomit, without telling him the means to employ.” “I went through ten years of this. But after six months of exercises for mental re-education I triumphed over all those difficulties. Now I have almost forgotten that I had been ill. Although I have not yet recovered the same full capacity for work as heretofore, I do find that I am cured and satisfied.”

I, too, had to pass through that sorry state of distressing introspection. Yet it was useful.

They gave me the key to my cure in the re-education of control. It has taught me how to direct and console those who are suffering from illnesses similar to mine. I say “to direct and console”, for we should not prescind from medical aid. Even if symptoms seem to be alike, they sometimes have far deeper roots. In such cases only consultation with a spiritual psychiatrist could promise security and improvement.

“I am eighteen years old,” a young man said, “and formerly I was strong as an oak. I could read for hours and hours without fatigue. I was very optimistic and felt capable of any undertaking. But last term I studied very little and had a lot of fun with various companions. As examination time drew near we spent several nights studying until three o'clock in the morning. We drove off sleepiness by means of coffee. But now that the examinations are over, I hardly know what has happened to me. Sleep is a torment. It is either a network of images or else a single image which continually repeats itself. Even during the day my head boils. I cannot pay attention to conversation. Reading tires me. I cannot distract myself. Life terrifies me; I am afraid of everything, even of myself.”

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This young man lost control because of excess and disorder in his mental work. Let such a one take heart, begin to strengthen his over-excited nervous system, perhaps travel a bit and rest. Then let him begin the work of mental re-education. Let us form ourselves without waiting for somebody else to form and model us. See, for example, how children amuse themselves when they are alone. They build structures of clay or sand which they then enjoy leveling to the ground; so should we in solitude mould our characters and virtues, and destroy our defects.

Four everyday duties will help me to achieve a more healthy mental life. I must resolve, first, to strengthen and govern my body (nourishment, exercise and discipline); secondly, to feed and enlighten my intellect (serious, concentrated work); thirdly, to elevate and control my heart (love of God and neighbor); and finally, to strengthen and exercise my will (decision and constancy).

Mental Fatigue or Weakness

This fatigue or weakness is no mere imagination or fiction of the one who suffers from it. It is a true sickness, real and distressing. Usually it is not primarily organic but mental in origin. Those who have not experienced it find it hard to understand.

Symptoms

Bodily: Quite varied: a sensation of a band of heat or pressure around the head or forehead, a feeling of heaviness in the head, or headaches, nervous tension with little or no relaxation, nervousness both when awake and when desirous of sleep, waking at night and finding it impossible to go back to sleep, incipient dizziness, exaggerated or unaccountable rushes of blood to the face, difficulty in speaking in public, hypersensitivy of the sense of hearing, trouble with respiration, digestion, etc.

Mental:

In ideas or images:

Fixed ideas (in general, depressing): discouragement, scruples, persecution complexes, phobias, etc.

Currents of ideas (without being able to halt or channel them): associations imposed by the subconscious, impressions of the day which pass before the mind as if in a moving-picture, continual distractions, difficulty in fixing the attention, lessening or loss of memory.

In consciousness (psychological, not moral): Total or partial lack of clear consciousness and of adequate response to impressions. Lack of objectivity. The victim does not enter into reality or society but is engulfed in egocentrism. The victim does not live in or enjoy the present, does not attend to or obtain a clear notion of what he sees or hears. He lives in the past or future, far from the place where he is physically present, wrapped up in sadness, scruples, worries. A waking sleep. An exaggeratedly subjective life.

In the affective faculties: Impressionability, excessive or persistent fears or desires. Emotional disorders. Anxieties. Alternating feelings of sadness or joy, peace or trouble, courage or discouragement, without an objective cause. The victim has lost control of his ideas and feelings.

In the will: Indecision, loss of will power (abulia), instability, inconstancy. The victim acts on impulse, not by deliberation. As a consequence: a feeling of inferiority, helplessness, and all kinds of phobias. He is a prisoner in a self-made prison house.

In short: A bothersome duality and uncontrolled activity, loss of control and dominion over oneself.

Causes

Bodily: Sometimes efficient causes; in general, only predispositive): Heredity, malfunctioning of the endocrine glands, surgical trauma, organic depletion, nervous debility, excessive bodily fatigue.

Mental:

Sudden: mental or emotional shock (e.g., in bombardments).

Slow: come from a disordered physical life, unhappy experiences in early childhood, etc.

a) In the intellectual order: work periods of rest, or not rightly planned, or with two ideas. The parasite idea may be impulsive, such as an anxious pursuit of knowledge, business, virtue, prayer; in work, study, reading or prayer under pressure; e.g., trying to learn an hour’s lesson in a few minutes. It may also be depressive: scruples, worry, discouragement, fear of fatigue or failure.

b) in the affective order: strong uncontrolled impressions, anxiety, prudery, emotional conflicts which are repressed but not settled; family troubles; a bad education in modesty: continuous and accumulated impressions from novels and movies which in an hour make us live out the feelings of a whole year; a great disproportion between aspirations and possibilities.

c) in the executive order: intellectual or manual work with an urge to finish promptly (e.g., beginning a letter or business affair already thinking of what is to come next; wanting to finish reading the whole newspaper in five minutes, etc.)

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Remedies

Bodily: Physical education, sports, medicines, injections, shock treatment, etc. help to form an organism that is fit for the struggle or help to cure the organic part affected. They are one-sided means. The great success of spiritual psychiatrists lies in their use of spiritual as well as bodily (somatic) means.

Mental:

a) Passive: The rest cure, without giving the victim any occupation or distraction. Frequently this makes him worse. Hypnosis helps to investigate the subconscious, the roots of evil, and extirpate them. But it lends itself to abuse and haves the victim more passive. Its effects are likewise obtainable by suggestion. This is good when in the hands of someone who knows how to induce it; sometimes it is difficult, but will be found easier in re-education. Stimulation can be private and personal, “I can do it, I shall overcome myself, I am not afraid.” Or it can be collective (as used by spiritualists and similar types of religious believers). This is reducible to a suggestion, though not a very deep one.

b) Active (which do not necessarily exclude others): Catharsis or ventilation or interpretation of conscious or unconscious problems. Auto-suggestion and the re-education of mental control: re-education of sense consciousness, intellectual concentration, feelings and will. This is our system. Since the illness is above all a psychic or psychosomatic one, the cure must begin with the patient himself, with self-conquest and re-education through personal relationship with the counselor.

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