The Tick-Tock Syndrome

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Image by Flickr user: smemon87 / Creative Commons

Like many reformed addicts, Santa Fe physician Larry Dossey is determined to help others avoid his mistakes. For years Dossey was addicted to racing against the clock, desperately trying to see how much he could get done as the minutes ticked away. And like many other driven people, Dossey began to pay a price for his single-minded pursuit of success. Migraine headaches started while he was in high school and grew worse as he hurried through medical school and began his career as an internist in Dallas. Nothing if not resolute, Dossey managed to keep pushing despite the pain. Then he heard about something called biofeedback, gave it a try, and his life was never the same–and not only because the migraines vanished. “I didn’t even know I had a mind-body relationship before that time,” he says. “It was like turning on a light.”

At the time Dossey was on the staff of the Dallas Diagnostic Association clinic, which was located near two major high-tech manufacturing centers, both full of time-racing engineers who ended up in Dossey’s office complaining of migraines or chest pains or sleep disorders. When Dossey introduced these anxious superachievers to biofeedback, the results were impressive, and he began to think in greater depth about time and our relationship to it. He concluded that time battlers’ stress-related illnesses, ranging from heart disease to nervous exhaustion, constituted a distinct pathology he called “time-sickness,” which he described in his book Space, Time and Medicine (Shambala, 1982).

Time sickness, says Dossey, is nearing epidemic proportions today as people deploy state-of-the-art weaponry like fax machines, cellular phones, and power PCs in their efforts to beat the clock. Victims of time sickness, he adds, are obsessed with the notion “that time is getting away, that there isn’t enough of it, and that you must pedal faster and faster to keep up. The trouble is, the body has limits that it imposes on us. And the body will not be fooled if we try to beat it into submission and ask more of it than it can deliver in a 24-hour day. It will let us know.”

The typical signals the body sends are migraine headaches, irritable bowels, sleep disorders and low-grade depression. Of course, not everyone who suffers from these conditions has time sickness. What sets time-sick people apart, according to Dossey, is that when stressful conditions are removed, they continue to race the clock. They find it agonizing to wait, because waiting means that precious seconds are slipping away. Stuck in line or waiting for a bus, they can’t stop glancing at their watches, exhaling loudly or drumming their fingers. When time sickness strikes Type A personalities, the combination is combustible: They not only chafe at having to stop at a red light, they also want to shoot out the light.

Dossey’s method of treating time-sick people calls for changing their perception of time by getting them to slow down, through biofeedback or meditation or prayer, and to learn to actually step out of time with these same techniques. The benefits of a regular program of such “time exits” extend beyond improved health. “Therapy for time sickness is more than just solving high blood pressure or making headaches go away,” he says. “It involves changes of behavior that lead to insight and wisdom.”

Other physicians studying the medical problems suffered by time battlers agree with Dossey that daily programs of quiet reflection are essential to restoring health. Some of the most dramatic findings have been reported by Dr. Dean Ornish, president and director of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, Calif., who found that cardiac patients experienced dramatic improvement when they took part in a comprehensive program of meditation and yoga. While Ornish’s approach to treating time sickness is similar to Dossey’s, he takes a somewhat different slant on the nature of the forces causing this disease. While Dossey points to technological gizmos as culprits in making people more susceptible to time sickness, Ornish argues that this view vests these machines with too much power.

Ornish has a cellular phone, a beeper, a fax, and e-mail. He talks fast on the phone, and in the background you can hear him busily typing or opening letters. But he also meditates or does yoga everyday, and says this helps him better appreciate his machines’ capabilities for connecting him with others. “There’s an old Zen proverb, ‘Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water,'” he says. “You could just as easily say, ‘Before enlightenment, use your fax machine and cellular phone. After enlightenment, use your fax machine and cellular phone.'”

Dr. James M. Gordon, director of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, D.C., also feels that the way we relate to time has significant medical consequences. He emphasizes our need to get in touch with the natural rhythms of life, to eat when we’re hungry and sleep when we’re tired instead of when we think it’s the right time. “It’s important to break the sense of time as taskmaster,” he says.

This outlook corresponds to the way humans viewed time throughout most of history. Now physicians like Gordon, Dossey, and Ornish say it may be a more healthy way of looking at time than the mechanistic concept that developed with the invention of the pendulum clock in the 1600s. They suggest that time is not the strictly linear force that most of us–especially time-sickness victims–think it is. It is actually cyclical, like the phases of the moon and the tides of the ocean, and cannot be overcome by doggedly pushing forward. Time, they say, is a mystery to be contemplated, not a foe to be vanquished.

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