Stress: its links to Madness
Stress, according to J. Herbert of the University of Cambridge, “refers to any demand (physical or psychological) that is outside the norm and that signals a disparity between what is optimal and what actually exists”.1 To the average person, stress is common and characterized by loss of hair and sleep, gray hair, an upset stomach, a weakened immune system, and other unpleasant physical symptoms. Stress certainly has these negative impacts on the body, but as we see in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall Paper,” stress can also have negative impacts on the mind, leading to what we call madness.
The woman within Gilman’s story experiences stress from many angles in her life, some of which come from her family. She just had what appears to be her first child, and she tells her audience, “I CANNOT be with him, it makes me so nervous.”2 She also worries about meeting her husband’s expectations. The way her husband, John, speaks to her, calling her childish pet names such “blessed little goose,” gives the reader a sense of how inferior the woman appears to feel.2
Much of the woman’s stress seems to be coming from her relationship with John. The loving and supporting relationship that she should have in her life is instead one of power and mockery. The woman states that John laughs at her, and “one expects that in marriage,”2 something contradictory to the loving relationship typically expected. When she was told she may need to go see Weir Mitchell, the woman states “I don’t want to go there at all, I had a friend who was in his hands once, and she says he is just like John…only more so!”2 She expresses fear and distaste of John, telling us that the idea of being in the care of another man like him displeases her.
The woman shows that she has constant stress to hide who she is, and who she wants to be. She is not allowed to write as she wishes, and she must hide it from her family. She also confides in her readers that “[I] cry most of the time. Of course I don’t when John is here, or anybody else, but when I am alone.”2 Her feelings of stress and entrapment in her relationships are enhanced by her physical entrapment in a dingy room. She is clearly unhappy in the room and is repulsed by the wall paper covering it. Her constant displeasure with her room becomes obsessive, and John’s lack of compliance to her requests for a change causes an even greater break in the woman’s mental wellbeing.
Though Holden, the narrator of The Catcher in the Rye, is not confined by a room or by a significant other, he does experience social stressors. Holden is a teenager who has no interest in the prep school education his parents are forcing upon him. He has failed out of several schools, and he has a lot of pressure from his parents and teachers to shape up. He is frequently reminded that “life is a game that one plays according to the rules,” yet this is advice he simply does not want to take.3 Holden’s parents are disappointed in him each time they see him get the ax from another school. He is constantly torn between wanting to live up to the expectations that have been laid down for him, and wanting to live life his own way.
Holden also has to deal with a serious psychological stressor. Three years before he tells his story, Holden loses his younger brother Allie to leukemia. Holden admired Allie a lot, for “He was the most intelligent member in the family. He was also the nicest, in lots of ways.”3 Holden confides in his audience just how the loss affected him, telling us “I slept in the garage the night Allie died, and broke all the goddam windows just for the hell of it.”3
It can be argued that these stressors affect the physical wellbeing of the characters, seen in Holden’s gray hair, or the woman’s exhaustion, but the stress affects their mental wellbeing too. Both characters exhibit signs of depression. Holden displays sudden feelings of sadness, or outbursts of anger. He also has random episodes of crying such as when he is with Phoebe on page 233, and random suicidal thoughts such as “I felt like jumping out the window.”3 The woman’s signs of depression are more subtle. She tells her audience that “no one would believe what effort it is to do what little I am able” and that “I cry at nothing, and cry most of the time.”2
“Stress has an important role in both the onset and course of mental illness.”1 The different stressful social and psychological events that these characters are experiencing are potential causes of their feelings of depression, and could be linked to their behaviors of “madness.” Low self-esteem and life events, such as the loss of a relative, as Holden is experiencing, or lack of a confiding relationship and social adversity, such as the woman is experiencing, can lead to physiological changes that lead to depression.1 These factors can lead to changes in cortisol or serotonin levels in the body, and can change gene expression in the cells of the brain, changing its overall function.1
In scientific literature, many discoveries only show the physical affects that stress has on the body. Yet, stress does not just have physical consequences, but mental ones. From personal experience, I know that as stress levels increase, so do feelings such as lack of control, or feelings like the world is going to collapse around me. The madness of Holden in The Catcher in the Ryeand the woman in “The Yellow Wallpaper”is caused by the social and psychological stressors that they have to deal with in their lives. Each character’s mental instability will only continue if the stress within their lives continues.
1. Herbert J. Fortnighly review. Stress, the brain, and mental illness. BMJ. 1997;315(7107):530–535.
2. Gillman C. The Yellow Wallpaper. Available at: http://www.pagebypagebooks.com/Charlotte_Perkins_Gilman/The_Yellow_Wallpaper/The_Yellow_Wallpaper_p1.html. Accessed February 23, 2013.
3. Salinger JD. The Catcher in the Rye. New York: Little, Brown and Company; 1951.