Monday, January 21, 2013

Repetitive Stress

We've all heard of repetitive stress injury, damage to muscles, tendons and nerves that builds slowly as a result of repeated activity (e.g., pressing against hard surfaces, holding awkward positions, over-extending your back, arms or legs) or exposure to stimuli (e.g., vibration, cold,  pressure). The damage incurred by each action or exposure is minimal and goes unnoticed until the cumulative effect reaches a tipping point and suddenly, "ow".

Repetitive stress typically results from activities and experiences that we enjoy, ones that hold our attention. We become so focused that we often miss the effects in the moment, only noticing them later when we're not engaged in the activity that caused them. Missing the momentary effect makes identifying the source of stress difficult, specially when we don't want to believe that something we enjoy is causing us pain.

There are many popular forms of repetitive stress injury (e.g, tennis elbow, texter's thumb, phoner's shoulder, typist's neck, and masturbator's wrist) that we've come to recognize as such.  However, there are other, more subtle and varied forms that have a greater impact on our day-to-day lives, and yet go unnoticed, specially the ones that directly impact our perspectives and happiness.

FOX-News Angst
For example, my dad suffers from what I've come to call FOX-News Angst. Every day, he "enjoys" watching hour-upon-hour of the network's broadcasts. As he begins his viewing day, the familiar strains of various anchors and pundits provide him a sense of normalcy and well-being. He laughs and nods as they joke about the latest ineptitude perpetrated by the current holders of political office. By mid-morning he gets a bit agitated; the inept actions are no longer funny; they're dangerous. By lunchtime he's deeply concerned about the future of this country; he's angry that no one is doing anything about it.  By dinnertime he's downright depressed, so tired that he might just skip dinner and go to bed.

That's pretty much my dad's daily experience.

Every once-and-a-while, Dad talks about how depressed he feels. I ask him about it. He tells me about all the terrible things that are happening in this world, how they could all be avoided if the people in charge weren't so stupid and inept. As he tells his tale, he repeatedly cites a single source of information. "I was watching FOX News and..." or "They said on FOX that..."

I point out that he's said nothing about his environment or what's happening to him. None of the sources of his depression are from direct experience; all are from television. I suggest that, if he really doesn't want to be depressed, perhaps he should spend more time not-watching FOX News. Several times, my dad has responded with, "You know, a couple of other people told me that today."

Nonetheless, watch FOX he does. He recognizes the challenge, but is not ready to act upon his insights. It's a purgatory of sorts, a state of being that is post-denial, yet pre-acknowledgment.

1-2-3 Repeat
Of course my dad's not alone in his pursuit of non-physical activities that lead to repetitive stress and strain. We all do them, sometimes quite consciously, sometimes not. Many of our activities that result in stress and strain are ones we've done so long that we know longer notice the activity, let alone the causal relationship.

For example, some of us respond to every failure or near failure with a litany of self-retribution. We beat ourselves mercilessly so as to avoid repeating the offense. We've responded this way for so long that we no longer see it as anything but "how anyone would react."  The longterm effect of repeatedly beating the crap out of yourself is pretty significant, specially when you don't even notice that that's what you're doing.

Other examples include:
- mulling over all that go wrong,
- telling others why your're bound to fail,
- keeping inside the things that bother you most,
- envying people who have unfair advantages, and
- hating how you look.

You get the idea. There are as many forms as there are people, perhaps more. These types of repetitive stress affect us physically, mentally and psychologically in bigger ways than any physical repetitive stress every could. Yet we tend not to acknowledge the existence of the phenomenon, let alone the specific instances.

The crazy part is that it's not all that hard to correct our actions. The tricky part is seeing them and acknowledging their effect.

Happy Monday,


  1. Tef: you may be familiar with an analogous (and equally real) phenomenon in engineering called metal fatigue. A component designed to survive a one-time load of say 1000 lbs can be made to fail under a load of maybe half that amount - just by repeated applications. And similar to what you have described, the solutions are well-known (redesign, reinforce, heat-treat the same material to raise its endurance or replace with higher-grade material), but the key is to identify & understand the phenomenon.

  2. Sree, thank you for your comment. As I read your description of metal fatigue, I thought about the bars that suspend parking signs and the like. Know matter how strong you are, it would be pretty tough to walk up to one of them and bend it. Nonetheless, if you were to press the tips of your fingers against one and then slowly push back and forth, you could get it swaying so extremely that it might just break.

    As you point out, the tricky part is seeing it. I've been thinking about that one tonight and came up with a conclusion that kind of surprised me. Clearly it's hard to see how impeded we can be by the things to which we cling tightest. So, we start to focus on being able to see those things and we can become pretty good at spotting them.

    However, the thing that occurred to me as next to impossible is to identify the sources of repetitive stress that are somehow definitional in who we are. For example, what if someone were to take great solace in her belief in God and what if that belief were at the root of her most impactful repetitive stress? Or, what if someone defined himself by his intellect and yet, it were his belief in his intellect and the cost of sustaining that belief that lead to his stress?

    The potential we have to be blinded by our own enlightenment is a bit daunting.


Read, smile, think and post a message to let us know how this article inspired you...