Article by John Illman
Published in the Guardian newspaper, 16th January 1996
Tense and wound-up after a hard day at work? Don't worry, there's help at hand. John Illman tries out some alternative therapies and calls for the ... Stress Busters.
Healthcare at work used to be restricted to the company nurse and dedicated first aiders. But now complementary therapists are turning a speculative eye towards stress-ridden offices. In the past fortnight, "company therapists" have offered to massage me, hypnotise me, and rub aromatic oils into my body.
I felt both cautious and curious. I have always thought of my stress and I as being inseparable -- the perfect couple. We have a love/hate relationship. You'd be similarly lost without your stress. You wouldn't last long if you didn't feel the alarm bells sounding after a stinging rebuke from the MD, or if you started giggling down the phone at an angry customer.
I also felt cautious because I fear we are treating stress like the common cold -- as something of which we should get rid. This began with "medicalisation" of worry and anxiety by the first tranquiliser manufacturers, who did not know, then, that tranquilisers are as likely, in the long term, to cause stress as to alleviate it.
This pill scare has put complementary medicine in pole position. There may soon be long queues in the office for the Alexander technique, aromatherapy, art therapy, biofeedback, breathing exercises, flotation, massage, reflexology, relaxation exercises, t'ai chi, visualisation and yoga.
The idea of eliminating stress, and with it the sharp edges of everyday life, is so seductive that it is easy to forget that most of us thrive on stress. Of course, there is "good stress" and "bad stress". Anxiety will improve performance until a certain optimum level, beyond which performance will deteriorate. As Professor Hans Selye, author of Stress Without Distress, puts it: "You must find your own optimum stress level." Deborah Marshall-Warren, a London-based hypnotherapist, is convinced that her brand of complementary therapy can help to relieve bad stress.
I have just had a dose of her unique orange liquid therapy. The orange liquid is imaginary, but the effect is real enough. After 45 minutes in her chair on Friday, I left feeling significantly more relaxed.
I had never been hypnotised before and was genuinely surprised (as I suspect most people are) that I went into a trance so quickly. I was totally disinclined to open my eyes and surrendered myself completely to the idea of the soothing orange liquid filling my body, starting with my feet and working upwards.
"Feel your calves filling with the orange liquid", Marshall-Warren intoned, "... soothing, tingling". In no time at all, it seems, I was full to the brim and my fears and anxieties were being washed away.
Yes, I know how it must sound. This could seriously undermine my credibility, but there was a genuine therapeutic effect. In theory, the next time I am badly stressed, thinking of the soothing orange liquid will make it go away, and the good stress will take over. Of course, being taught to relax does nothing to resolve our external problems, but it may affect the way we react to them, leaving us less susceptible to physical tension and stress-induced illnesses.
Isn't it better, I asked, to be active rather than passive in the pursuit of health and relaxation? Marshall-Warren agreed: "Hypnotherapy can give you time out for yourself", she says. It also has the potential to explore mental rather than physical knots, enabling clients to revise and correct "mental scripts" -- ways of reacting in stressful situations.
"With walking, you will not necessarily be able to change the scene of your mental script. With hypnotherapy you can re-write it easily and quickly.
"For example, a former straight-As school student may be functioning as a manager with a much broader curriculum and still be aiming to achieve straight As across half a dozen different strands of responsibility. This may be totally inappropriate and unnecessarily stressful.
"Hypnotherapy can awaken him to the fact that he is designing his life around an old script. He can use hypnotherapy to re-script his life in the here and now, enabling him to make the final transformation from school to industry."
You don't have to go to a therapist to untangle physical or mental knots or even for a walk. For simple physical tension you can resort to exercises of the kind described by Dr E Jacobson in his book Progressive Relaxation (published in 1938). These involve simply bracing and letting go the muscles of the feet, legs, thighs, buttocks, back, shoulders, neck and face. It is the cheapest option of all. You even save on shoe soles.