Everyone who works in an office knows what a pressure cooker it can be. Tim Breen knows it better than most people do. Breen, who works as a digital operations manager for Jet Copy Centres Ltd., found the constant deadlines and aggravation of his job was making him snap like an elastic band.
"The copy business is such a 'need it now, need it yesterday' environment," he says. "It got so bad I was having anxiety and panic attacks that included trouble breathing and even dizziness and disorientation. After awhile I couldn't even ride on the subway or go into a mall."
Breen's brother recommended a stress management expert he had seen on TV - Eli Bay.
Bay is one of Canada's leading experts on stress management and the founder of The Relaxation Response Institute in Toronto. He has led workshops for firms such as IBM, Canadian Tire and CIBC, and he sees stress as a modern epidemic and relaxation as the antidote.
"The trouble is our bodies haven't changed since we lived in caves," he says in the melodious voice of the seminar leader. "But the technological changes that are affecting our lives are growing at a geometric rate. Physiologically, we can't keep up."
This not keeping up could be the cause of 80 percent of all illnesses, from headache to heart attacks. Our big problem is not that we live stressful lives (even though we do), it's the way our minds and bodies react automatically to the stress.
The main culprit of this unhealthy reaction to stress is called "the fight or flight" response. It works this way: When we confront something we perceive as threatening - even something imagined such as a threat to our ego - a complex flow of hormones, including adrenaline, automatically flows into the bloodstream.
We become ready for anything - to fight or run away at top speed. Blood pressure and heart rate go up in order to bring more oxygen to the muscles.
The muscles tense up, digestion slows down, our senses become heightened and our ability to think increases. Think of a cat with its back arched - all the time.
"Our bodies react to any change - good or bad - in the same way it would react to the snort of a sabre-toothed tiger," Bay explains. "And since we are in a constantly changing world, we are in a constant state of arousal."
Stress, he points out, is not necessarily bad in and of itself. Too little stress makes your performance level go down because it's the fuel that gets things done.
It doesn't even have to be caused by something unpleasant; for example, getting married is considered even more stressful than getting fired. The trouble is that most of us can't turn it off in order to keep the stress in our lives in the "spice of life" zone. But there is an answer - it's called the "relaxation response."
The term was coined back in the 70s by Dr. Herbert Benson, a professor at the Harvard Medical School and leading expert in high blood pressure.
While researching ways of helping people bring their own blood pressure down, he discovered that built into the body is an innate anti-stress mechanism that quiets the body and suppresses the manufacture of stress hormones.
Yogis and meditators have known about it for years but Benson was the first to put it in a scientific framework. The trick of course, is knowing how to elicit the relaxation response. Helping the average person do that is what stress busters like Eli Bay are all about.
One important stress reducer is diet, which is surprisingly important in combating stress. Both caffeine and sugar are stress builders (so much for that "relaxing" coffee and donut break), and drinking up to eight glasses of water a day is recommended to dilute the hormones in the blood.
But mental attitude and knowledge of how to effectively manage stress is also of vital importance.
"What I have done," Bay explains, "is taken what I know are good relaxation techniques from various disciplines and stripped them of their esoteric jargon and ceremony."
Anyone who has seen his TV Ontario shows, Beyond Stress and Well-Being, knows he teaches a series of physical, breathing and mind focus exercises.
One is called Progressive Relaxation and begins with tensing up the hand tighter and tighter with the awareness centering on the tension, allowing yourself to experience it.
The tension is released, the relaxation experienced as well. This repeated with the arm, the leg and so on, until the entire body has been relaxed in this way.
He also uses visualization, in which you are encouraged to imagine yourself in whatever situation you would most feel calm in - on a quiet palm-fringed beach with the surf rolling in, for instance.
One of the most basic exercises is simply deep breathing. As Bay puts it: "Most adults use only the top two thirds of their lungs when breathing, but children breathe right down to the bottom of their lungs - that's relaxed breathing.
This is important because breathing affects the flow of hormones through the endocrine system. If you want to be relaxed, breathe relaxed."
Of course it all seems very simple, and it is, but you have to actually choose to stop what you are doing in the midst of your busy day and spend 10 minutes slowly breathing the tension (or anger or fear) away.
This can be especially difficult when you are being stressed out by deadlines or a malfunctioning computer, but with practice, inducing the relaxation response can become almost unconscious.
About 40 percent of Bay's clients are referred by a physician. Not surprisingly, many are skeptical. "I love skeptics," he says, "because they get the most dramatic results from the program."
For the ultra skeptical, he has the figures to back up his claims. A 1986 study conducted jointly by the Addiction Research Foundation and Bay's Relaxation Response Institute, showed just how dramatic the results can be.
Employees of different firms took his course and filled out before and after questionnaires. The results? Sixty-six percent reported improvement in body dysfunctions such as headaches, muscle soreness and nausea; 81 percent reported improvements in the obsessive- compulsive area such as repeated unpleasant thoughts and trouble concentrating; 33 percent reported greater work satisfaction; and 40 percent had improved sleep.
Breen is one of the people who has had his life turned around by Bay and his anti-stress message.
"I use the relaxation techniques every day," he says, "first thing in the morning, at lunch, any time I feel stress. In fact I'm doing it now as I talk to you. A lot of it consists of just taking my physical (and emotional and spiritual) temperature on a constant basis and then willing myself to relax."
Breen's panic attacks have disappeared, something that doesn't surprise Eli Bay, who doesn't see relaxation just as important, but essential.
"Relaxation is a foundation skill," he says, "I believe it's the vital survival skill for those who want to be successful as we move into the 21st century."