Books > The American Woman's Home (1869) > XX. Health of Mind

The American Woman's Home

XX. Health of Mind.

There is such an intimate connection between the body and mind that the health of one can not be preserved without a proper care of the other. And it is from a neglect of this principle, that some of the most exemplary and conscientious persons in the world suffer a thousand mental agonies from a diseased state of body, while others ruin the health of the body by neglecting the proper care of the mind.

When the mind is excited by earnest intellectual effort, or by strong passions, the blood rushes to the head and the brain is excited. Sir Astley Cooper records that, in examining the brain of a young man who had lost a portion of his skull, whenever "he was agitated by some opposition to his wishes," "the blood was sent with increased force to his brain," and the pulsations "became frequent and violent." The same effect was produced by any intellectual effort; and the flushed countenance which attends earnest study or strong emotions of interest of any kind, is an external indication of the suffused state of the brain from such causes.

In exhibiting the causes which injure the health of the mind, we shall find them to be partly physical, partly intellectual, and partly moral.

The first cause of mental disease and suffering is not unfrequently in the want of a proper supply of duly oxygenized blood. It has been shown that the blood, in passing through the lungs, is purified by the oxygen of the air combining with the superabundant hydrogen and carbon of the venous blood, thus forming carbonic acid and water, which are expired into the atmosphere. Every pair of lungs is constantly withdrawing from the surrounding atmosphere its healthful principle, and returning one which is injurious to human life.

When, by confinement and this process, the air is deprived of its appropriate supply of oxygen, the purification of the blood is interrupted, and it passes without being properly prepared into the brain, producing languor, restlessness, and inability to exercise the intellect and feelings. Whenever, therefore, persons sleep in a close apartment, or remain for a length of time in a crowded or ill-ventilated room, a most pernicious influence is exerted on the brain, and, through this, on the mind. A person who is often exposed to such influences can never enjoy that elasticity and vigor of mind which is one of the chief indications of its health. This is the reason why all rooms for religious meetings, and all school-rooms and sleeping apartments should be so contrived as to secure a constant supply of fresh air from without. The minister who preaches in a crowded and ill-ventilated apartment loses much of his power to feel and to speak, while the audience are equally reduced in their capability of attending. The teacher who confines children in a close apartment diminishes their ability to study, or to attend to instructions. And the person who habitually sleeps in a close room impairs mental energy in a similar degree. It is not unfrequently the case that depression of spirits and stupor of intellect are occasioned solely by inattention to this subject.

Another cause of mental disease is the excessive exercise of the intellect or feelings. If the eye is taxed beyond its strength by protracted use, its blood-vessels become gorged, and the bloodshot appearance warns of the excess and the need of rest. The brain is affected in a similar manner by excessive use, though the suffering and inflamed organ can not make its appeal to the eye. But there are some indications which ought never to be misunderstood or disregarded. In cases of pupils at school or at college, a diseased state, from over-action, is often manifested by increased clearness of mind, and temporary ease and vigor of mental action. In one instance, known to the writer, a most exemplary and industrious pupil, anxious to improve every hour and ignorant or unmindful of the laws of health, first manifested the diseased state of her brain and mind by demands for more studies, and a sudden and earnest activity in planning modes of improvement for herself and others. When warned of her danger, she protested that she never was better in her life; that she took regular exercise in the open air, went to bed in season, slept soundly, and felt perfectly well; that her mind was never before so bright and clear, and study never so easy and delightful. And at this time, she was on the verge of derangement, from which she was saved only by an entire cessation of all intellectual efforts.

A similar case occurred, under the eye of the writer, from over-excited feelings. It was during a time of unusual religious interest in the community, and the mental disease was first manifested by the pupil bringing her hymn-book or Bible to the class-room, and making it her constant resort, in every interval of school duty. It finally became impossible to convince her that it was her duty to attend to any thing else; her conscience became morbidly sensitive, her perceptions indistinct, her deductions unreasonable; and nothing but entire change of scene and exercise, and occupation of her mind by amusement, saved her. When the health of the brain was restored, she found that she could attend to the "one thing needful," not only without interruption of duty or injury to health, but rather so as to promote both. Clergymen and teachers need most carefully to notice and guard against the dangers here alluded to.

Any such attention to religion as prevents the performance of daily duties and needful relaxation is dangerous, and tends to produce such a state of the brain as makes it impossible to feel or judge correctly. And when any morbid and unreasonable pertinacity appears, much exercise and engagement in other interesting pursuits should be urged, as the only mode of securing the religious benefits aimed at. And whenever any mind is oppressed with care, anxiety, or sorrow, the amount of active exercise in the fresh air should be greatly increased, that the action of the muscles may withdraw the blood which, in such seasons, is constantly tending too much to the brain.

There has been a most appalling amount of suffering, derangement, disease, and death, occasioned by a want of attention to this subject, in teachers and parents. Uncommon precocity in children is usually the result of an unhealthy state of the brain; and in such cases medical men would now direct that the wonderful child should be deprived of all books and study, and turned to play out in the fresh air. Instead of this, parents frequently add fuel to the fever of the brain, by supplying constant mental stimulus, until the victim finds refuge in idiocy or an early grave. Where such fatal results do not occur, the brain in many cases is so weakened that the prodigy of infancy sinks below the medium of intellectual powers in afterlife.

In our colleges, too, many of the most promising minds sink to an early grave, or drag out a miserable existence, from this same cause. And it is an evil as yet little alleviated by the increase of physiological knowledge. Every college and professional school, and every seminary for young ladies, needs a medical man or woman, not only to lecture on physiology and the laws of health, but empowered by official capacity to investigate the case of every pupil, and, by authority, to enforce such a course of study, exercise and repose, as the physical system requires. The writer has found by experience that in a large institution there is one class of pupils who need to be restrained by penalties from late hours and excessive study, as much as another class need stimulus to industry.

Under the head of excessive mental action, must be placed the indulgence of the imagination in novel-reading and "castle-building." This kind of stimulus, unless counterbalanced by physical exercise, not only wastes time and energies, but undermines the vigor of the nervous system. The imagination was designed by our wise Creator as a charm and stimulus to animate to benevolent activity; and its perverted exercise seldom fails to bring a penalty.

Another cause of mental disease is the want of the appropriate exercise of the various faculties of the mind. On this point, Dr. Combe remarks: "We have seen that, by disuse, muscles become emaciated, bone softens, blood-vessels are obliterated, and nerves lose their characteristic structure. The brain is no exception to this general rule. The tone of it is also impaired by permanent inactivity, and it becomes less fit to manifest the mental powers with readiness and energy." It is "the withdrawal of the stimulus necessary for its healthy exercise which renders solitary confinement so severe a punishment, even to the most daring minds. It is a lower degree of the same cause which renders continuous seclusion from society so injurious to both mental and bodily health."

"Inactivity of intellect and of feeling is a very frequent predisposing cause of every form of nervous disease. For demonstrative evidence of this position, we have only to look at the numerous victims to be found among persons who have no call to exertion in gaining the means of subsistence, and no objects of interest on which to exercise their mental faculties, and who consequently sink into a state of mental sloth and nervous weakness." "If we look abroad upon society, we shall find innumerable examples of mental and nervous debility from this cause. When a person of some mental capacity is confined for a long time to an unvarying round of employment which affords neither scope nor stimulus for one half of the faculties, and, from want of education or society, has no external resources; the mental powers, for want of exercise, become blunted, and the perceptions slow and dull." "The intellect and feelings, not being provided with interests external to themselves, must either become inactive and weak, or work upon themselves and become diseased."

"The most frequent victims of this kind of predisposition are females of the middle and higher ranks, especially those of a nervous constitution and good natural abilities; but who, from an ill-directed education, possess nothing more solid than mere accomplishments, and have no materials for thought," and no "occupation to excite interest or demand attention." "The liability of such persons to melancholy, hysteria, hypochondriasis, and other varieties of mental distress, really depends on a state of irritability of the brain, induced by imperfect exercise."

These remarks of a medical man illustrate the principles before indicated; namely, that the demand of Christianity, that we live to promote the general happiness, and not merely for selfish indulgence, has for its aim not only the general good, but the highest happiness of the individual of whom it is required in offering abundant exercise for all the noblest faculties.

A person possessed of wealth, who has nothing more noble to engage attention than seeking personal enjoyment, subjects the mental powers and moral feelings to a degree of inactivity utterly at war with health and mind. And the greater the capacities, the greater are the sufferings which result from this cause. Any one who has read the misanthropic wailings of Lord Byron has seen the necessary result of great and noble powers bereft of their appropriate exercise, and, in consequence, becoming sources of the keenest suffering.

It is this view of the subject which has often awakened feelings of sorrow and anxiety in the mind of the writer, while aiding in the development and education of superior feminine minds, in the wealthier circles. Not because there are not noble objects for interest and effort, abundant, and within reach of such minds; but because long-established custom has made it seem so quixotic to the majority, even of the professed followers of Christ, for a woman of wealth to practice any great self-denial, that few have independence of mind and Christian principle sufficient to overcome such an influence. The more a mind has its powers developed, the more does it aspire and pine after some object worthy of its energies and affections; and they are commonplace and phlegmatic characters who are most free from such deep-seated wants. Many a young woman, of fine genius and elevated sentiment, finds a charm in Lord Byron's writings, because they present a glowing picture of what, to a certain extent, must be felt by every well-developed mind which has no nobler object in life than the pursuit of self-gratification.

If young ladies of wealth could pursue their education under the full conviction that the increase of their powers and advantages increased their obligations to use all for the good of society, and with some plan of benevolent enterprise in view, what new motives of interest would be added to their daily pursuits! And what blessed results would follow to our beloved country, if all well-educated women, carried out the principles of Christianity, in the exercise of their developed powers!

The benevolent activities called forth in our late dreadful war illustrate the blessed influence on character and happiness in having a noble object for which to labor and suffer. In illustration of this, may be mentioned the experience of one of the noble women who, in a sickly climate and fervid season, devoted herself to the ministries of a military hospital. Separated from an adored husband, deprived of wonted comforts and luxuries, and toiling in humble and unwonted labors, she yet recalls this as one of the happiest periods of her life. And it was not the mere exercise of benevolence and piety in ministering, comfort and relieving suffering. It was, still more, the elevated enjoyment which only an enlarged and cultivated mind can attain, in the inspirations of grand and far-reaching results purchased by such sacrifice and suffering. It was in aiding to save her well-loved country from impending ruin, and to preserve to coming generations the blessings of true liberty and self-government, that toils and suffering became triumphant joys.

Every Christian woman who "walks by faith and not by sight," who looks forward to the results of self-sacrificing labor for the ignorant and sinful as they will enlarge and expand through everlasting ages, may rise to the same elevated sphere of experience and happiness. On the contrary, the more highly cultivated the mind devoted to mere selfish enjoyment, the more are the sources of true happiness closed and the soul left to helpless emptiness and unrest.

The indications of a diseased mind, owing to the want of the proper exercise of its powers, are apathy, discontent, a restless longing for excitement, a craving for unattainable good, a diseased and morbid action of the imagination, dissatisfaction with the world, and factitious interest in trifles which the mind feels to be unworthy of its powers. Such minds sometimes seek alleviation in exciting amusements; others resort to the grosser enjoyments of sense. Oppressed with the extremes of languor, or over-excitement, or apathy, the body fails under the wearing process, and adds new causes of suffering to the mind. Such, the compassionate Saviour calls to his service, in the appropriate terms, "Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me," "and ye shall find rest unto your souls."