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Let there be less

Photo: Stephanie Schweigert

“I’ve got so much to do and I’m completely stressed out!” – the term “stress” usually has negative connotations in everyday use. However, stress can be experienced in very many different ways. On the one hand, there is the widespread variant – known in medical circles as “distress” – which puts a strain on people and can have an adverse long-term effect on their health. On the other, however, there is a positive form of stress – “eustress” – that inspires us and spurs us on to great achievements. This “eustress” does us no harm – on the contrary, it brings our powers to the fore. Dedicating oneself entirely to an important project until it is signed, sealed and delivered, performing it with virtually incessant concentration yet with boundless energy – this exhilarating experience is not one that you are likely to get while relaxing on the beach. The sad fact is that many people are simply subjected to far more pressure than they can cope with: the Stress Report 2012 by the Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (BAuA) is the most comprehensive collection of data to date on stress in German workplaces and cites psychological problems as the cause of more than 53 million sick days. According to the report, some 41 percent of early retirements are due to psychological reasons – and the average age of those affected is just 48. However, an important distinction to make in this regard is that the stress in question is not only due to work. The Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health emphasises: “It is inconceivable to have a job that is entirely free of psychological demands. Work makes a fundamental contribution to a person’s satisfaction and can boost his or her self-esteem. This is why people who are gainfully employed generally have better mental health than unemployed people.”

Whether negative stress is due to work-related or personal reasons, professional help is available when it becomes too much to handle. One such source of professional help is Dr. Christian Schopper, who specialises in Neurology, Psychotherapy and Psychiatry, and is Chief of Medicine at the Sonneneck Psychosomatic Specialist Clinic and Psychosomatic Rehab Clinic in Badenweiler, not far from the French and Swiss borders. Both clinics offer anthroposophically extended treatment for psychosomatic illnesses, for example in the case of burnout, stress-induced depression or chronic pain.

Activation and Inhibition

“The concept of eustress and distress translates very well to Rudolf Steiner’s understanding of mankind”, explains Christian Schopper. “There, he describes phenomena that we can understand in a completely different way and that tie in with basic questions relating to ethereal1 life.” In 1917, Rudolf Steiner – the founder of anthroposophy – developed the concept of the threefold nature of the human body. Here, he distinguished between the nerve-sense system (head/thinking – belonging to day-consciousness), the rhythmic system (chest area/feeling – belonging to emotional life and incorporating breathing and circulation) and the metabolic-limb system (limbs/willing).

The autonomic nervous system oscillates back and forth between activation and inhibition, between eustress and distress. Every strain, every fear is reflected there and can manifest itself through physical symptoms such as breathing difficulties, sweating, diarrhoea or tense posture. A positive activation takes effect above all on an emotional level and therefore comes from the rhythmic system. “The really extraordinary contribution of anthroposophic medicine is its understanding of the rhythmic system. In this regard, Steiner was well ahead of his time”, says Schopper. “This system, represented through the heart and lungs, generates rhythm and conveys it to the remaining areas. The rhythmic system is the source of health and inner harmony.” This is why, in many ancient cultures, breathing exercises form the basis for practising meditation. As Schopper explains: “Steiner shows that rhythm is the fine connection into the ethereal. It is through rhythm that the ethereal takes effect. You can also say that health is the mastery of rhythm – and the ability to translate everything into rhythms.”

Healing rhythm

Both in working and private life, balanced rhythm and healing repetitions are an important factor in achieving health and inner harmony. “In the old days, farmers had to contend with lots of work or little work but stress was never a factor – they always worked in what is known as the ‘daily routine rhythm’”, emphasises Schopper. Monks, whose monastic life had a great influence on European culture, had their own special 12-hour rhythm in which meditative elements such as regular prayers were a permanent fixture.

In addition to psychotherapy, Sonneneck offers holistic therapy geared towards the body, mind and spirit. In the case of psychosomatic illness, stress and tension, sorrow or mental overload manifest themselves in physical symptoms. A method for releasing these blockages is found in body-based applications – this is why anthroposophic medicine is concerned with rhythmitising the body and the vegetative nervous system.

A whole range of body-based therapies and applications have a healing effect on the patient’s rhythmic system. In Schopper’s experience, this is a more promising approach than a purely cognitive one: “Elements in the body that were, so to speak, ‘frozen’ are allowed to flow again.” Traditional applications in the field of anthroposophic medicine include, for example, massages, baths and compresses, rhythmic massages (as developed by Ita Wegman and Margarethe Hauschka) or oil dispersion baths according to the Werner Junge principle. All of these therapies aim to rhythmitise and strengthen inner vitality.

Movement therapies such as Bothmer gymnastics and curative eurythmy redress imbalances in the body and restore harmony. Besides traditional anthroposophic therapies, Schopper has worked with craniosacral therapy for many years with great success. Many patients at Sonneneck also find Asian martial arts techniques to be therapeutic and good for restoring inner balance.

In addition to body-based therapies, experience-oriented therapies help to create new vitality: artistic experiences involving painting, sculpture and making music offer patients new ways to express themselves. And on a mental level, mindfulness exercises, progressive muscle relaxation and autogenic training can all help patients by improving their conscious perception and practising specific relaxation methods.

The villa, known as the “white house”, contains the reception area to the specialist clinic, doctors’ rooms and therapy rooms.
The Sonneneck clinics in Badenweiler enjoy an idyllic location in one of the sunniest regions of Germany.
Copper ball and rod (centre) enhance eurythmic exercises – eurythmy is an anthroposophic art of movement.
Our author Laura Krautkrämer interviewing Dr. Christian Schopper in his office.

No more focusing on shortcomings

Working situations can be challenging and strenuous. How people perceive and respond to this kind of stress ultimately determines whether it takes its toll on their health. As with research into self-healing powers – known as salutogenesis – scientists have for some time been shifting their focus from solely identifying shortcomings to determining how to boost inner vitality as well. However, coping with lots of work does not necessarily have to be a problem. This can be seen from the enviable “state of flow” – an almost ecstatic state that some people experience when mastering very challenging tasks. As Schopper explains: “Physiologically speaking, these people are experiencing eustress; spiritually speaking, they are experiencing a state of absolute positive obliviousness. They are in a meditative state, yet at the same time wide awake and firing on all cylinders – but without being worn down by the effort.” The burning question is: why is this so? In some cases, the way people organise their own work may be a factor: the more creatively and independently they are able to work, the more likely they are to enter such states. Apart from this, however, inner resources appear to be the key factors. The same goes for “resilience”, the ability to deal constructively with changes and to remain strong and resistant even in crisis situations.

“Before burnout or other pathological conditions, many people exhibit signs of profound exhaustion”, reports Schopper. Although there is no medical term, laboratory reports or classification for the condition, many people live in a permanent state of exhaustion and are constantly at the end of their tether.

“I need a break” – a common complaint among teachers, managers, therapists and homemakers alike. In Schopper’s experience, “many people, particularly those currently in the 50 to 70 age group, simply have no conception of self-care. We admire the laid-back French and Greek café culture but find it extremely difficult to fit even one break into our everyday routine.” Schopper finds a prime example of effective self-care in Leo Lionni’s classic children’s tale “Frederick”, about a mouse of the same name. Frederick is a daydreamer who prefers gathering sun rays and colours to hauling straw and nuts for the winter with his industrious fellow mice. His big moment comes in the winter when all the food supplies are used up. Frederick warms and nourishes the other mice with his vivid tales, in which he conjures up the colours and joys of the past summer again. “For me, that is the archetype for resilient self-care”, says Schopper with a smile.

Filling inner reservoirs

“I must feed my rhythmic system – happiness and inner harmony don’t come of their own accord”, says Schopper. But where can sources of strength be found in everyday life? “Many people have no place to recharge their batteries because they no longer have any rituals”, notes Schopper. “When examining people’s case histories, I almost always ascertain that my patients have no idea what is good for them or their souls.” To begin with, however, many of them want nothing to do with psychogenesis. “Many patients are referred to me by cardiologists because they have cardiac arrhythmia. Around 60 percent have no organic diagnosis at all”, says Schopper. In many cases, they struggle along for a long time with functional complaints and continue to look for organic causes even when the term “stress-induced depression” is already on the table. “People are often extremely reluctant to admit this: after all, it’s about themselves and their lifestyles.”

The fact is that pressure in the workplace has increased massively. Many managers in particular suffer extremely high levels of stress owing to rationalisation in their companies. In addition to these external factors, however, there are internal aspects that play an important role. Schopper observes that “Self-esteem issues are more and more acute – people have a very real need for praise and recognition”. Two further points are also crucial: “Firstly, fewer and fewer people are living in truly stable family situations or in solid partnerships. Secondly, I think that it is more important than ever today for people not only to exercise basic self-care but also to engage in ‘inner schooling’ in order to remain healthy.”

This inner schooling can take a wide variety of forms. In the world of anthroposophy, for instance, there is a whole repertoire of meditative exercises, from meditations based on texts such as Rudolf Steiner’s weekly verses to viewing pictures, natural meditations and concentration exercises. “On close examination, much of which Rudolf Steiner describes in his meditative exercises is contained in modern mindfulness-based therapies”, says Schopper. “Performing these exercises strengthens your resilience. You help to prevent stress, cultivate rhythm and get better at exercising self-care.” He sees Steiner’s ideas as being impressively forward-looking and suitable for everyday life – including for people who have no other connection with anthroposophy. The doctor perceives young people in particular as frequently being more receptive to spiritual questions. “An interesting modern trend – it appears as though human corporeality is more open than it used to be. Many young people do have spiritual experiences, but at the same time, they are less stable and make a more vulnerable overall impression.” This being the case, it seems all the more important for people to strengthen their own rhythm and, in turn, to mobilise their inner strength. As Schopper declares: “Anthroposophic medicine suggests many ways for improving our understanding of these questions.”