Figuring out the cause of stress

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We know: we're stressed!: That's a start: now, if only we could figure out the cause

Hollywood star Jane Seymour has an unusual definition of anxiety. "It's worrying you'll never get your figure back after having twins," she confides in a TV commercial. Seymour may play Dr. Quinn on TV but we should all be grateful she isn't a doctor in real life. How could a small weight gain cause stress for a woman who has millions to pay for a personal trainer? It probably just means Seymour would have no idea what to do in a genuine crisis.

The bottom line is everyone has a different idea of what constitutes stress. For one person it is being overdrawn at a bank and for someone else it is getting to work late. We all have certain triggers, and most people don't have time to stop and think seriously about what's causing them stress. That, in fact, could cause more stress.

A recent survey indicates not only are Canadians under more stress than ever but that, for the first time, they know they are stressed. Knowing you have a problem is half the battle, and one stress-management guru said the next step is obvious. Canadians are going to search for new ways in which to relieve stress. The truth is we are already on that highway.

The stress industry is booming. It is not uncommon to meet someone who has a monthly session with a massage therapist who works the stress right out of their muscles. Others try aromatherapy; yet more are trying out new herbal remedies. To more fully research my thesis, it seemed only right to check out massage therapy. The session was extremely insightful. Remind me to do more research.

Nova Scotia is now home to dozens of trained therapists who offer the stressed-out an alternative to medication. Years ago, if you suffered from a stiff neck or back spasm, a prescription would be just what the doctor ordered. Today, you have other options. The massage therapist who took a crack at my back said she has seen her profession boom in the last 10 years. The goal of the therapy is to unlock tense muscles.

Step one involved answering a questionnaire about what ailed me. It seemed unwise to check off too many boxes, but it was obvious my neck hurt, my wrists felt sore and my lower back was twisted into some kind of a knot most days. The therapist asked me to lie on the table, and left the room. When she returned I was almost asleep on the table. Seemed to be working already.

She turned on some music and it took me a couple of minutes to realize it wasn't really music but the sound of waves on the shore. Before long my eyes were closed, the seagulls were flying overhead and the pain in my right shoulder seemed to be disappearing. After about an hour of massage on most muscle groups, including my head, neck and back, it was time to go. The therapist had to say that four times. It is time to go. That's right -- back out to a noisy harsh world that makes perfectly innocent muscles tense up. The feeling of relaxation lasted for several days, and I could swear my right shoulder will never be stiff again.

So if Canadians are learning how to release stress, they must be able to identify what causes it right? Wrong. Most people think stress is something that makes you worry. It is possible to be under such terrible stress that you don't even see the warning signs. Many of us also have been running so long we don't even notice we forgot how to walk. Stress, according to the Canadian Medical Association, is not just when you worry about the car repair bill or whether your mother needs an operation. Stress comes from any kind of change, even the positive kind.

A change may be as good as a rest in some quarters, but for many people, any change overloads the system. They have to find a new babysitter, a new place to park or even a new route home. They feel pushed to the limit. What's really scary is that some doctors say there is a kind of stress that comes from imagined change. I'm really good at this kind. It's when you sit and picture how something is going to change. It may never happen, but in the meantime you manage to get stressed about it. Who says there's no such thing as a free lunch?

Stress-management consultants often ask clients to fill out a stress scale. Each life change is worth a certain number of points. The exercise is a useful one for determining if you are under stress.

A friend lost her mother, her job and had to move in a three- month period. The stress scale helped her realize she had every reason to feel as if she would snap, and that realization helped her to be good to herself. The death of a spouse tops the list, followed by divorce, which is worth 40 fewer points. Going through any change, including menopause or the breakup of a relationship, is also high on the list of stressors.

Serious injuries are in the top 10, but good things can cause stress, too. Getting married and getting fired are worth the same number of stress points. Getting back together with a former partner is worth as many points as retiring. If anyone in the house is ill, you are as stressed as someone who is working more than 40 hours a week. Being pregnant is as stressful as changing jobs, which makes sense. Sleeping fewer than eight hours a night is as stressful as a change in your responsibilities at work.

The increased focus on stress is positive. It forces some people to look at what they try to accomplish in a day and determine if it's a reasonable amount. Those who notice they are going through a high number of changes at once can build some down time into their routine. Still looking for a silver lining in our stressed lives? Two words: massage therapy.