The most damaging form of stress?

Regeneration is the first in a trilogy of WW1 novels by Pat Barker. The third in the series, Ghost Road, won the Booker prize.

One of the lead characters in Regeneration is WHR Rivers, an army psychologist and real figure from the times. He died in 1922.

The book is a profound consideration of the effects of war on individuals and society. It is Rivers’ job to get damaged young men fit enough for the front line again; though his own work practice and intentions are more nuanced than that; and, as the story unfolds, profoundly challenged by the soldiers he meets and the stories they tell.

Towards the end of the war, he becomes increasingly fascinated by the differences in severity of mental breakdown between the different services.

Pilots, for instance, though they did breakdown, did so less frequently and normally less severely than the men who manned the observation balloons.

They, floating helplessly above the battlefields, unable either to avoid attack or defend themselves against it, showed the highest incident of breakdown of any service, including infantry officers suffering the horror of trench warfare and No Man’s Land.

This reinforced Rivers’ view that it was the prolonged strain of immobility and helplessness that did the damage; and not the sudden shocks or bizarre horrors that the patients themselves were liable to point to as explanation for their condition.

It was the sustained helplessness and powerlessness that was so damaging.

For Rivers, this helped to explain the greater number of anxiety neuroses among women in peacetime, since their relatively more confined lives, with less power, gave fewer opportunities for reacting to stress in active and constructive ways.

And a century later, helpful truths linger here.

As with the men in the observation balloons; as with the many socially and professionally trapped women of the time, it is when we are feeling trapped by circumstances and powerless in the face of them that stress quietly does us the most damage.

In such situations, we best listen to the voice inside and seek active and constructive ways to proceed from this place.

We need to find some agency in this situation, however tentative; and start on a path of response.

Immobility and helplessness is the worst of solutions.


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