It’s the most common mental health issue, so why is it so hard to measure? On a scale of one to 10, where would you place your stress level? And everyone answered eleven.
Eleven. It’s always 11! Twenty years ago, when I asked this question of all my co-workers, they answered 11.
This past week, when I asked everyone I met the very same question, the reply was the identical.
The question was: On a scale of one to 10, where would you place your stress level? Eleven.
Sure, most people were snickering when they replied, but that didn’t mask the issue: A vast number of us feel that we’re in the headlights of a 16-wheeler, in the passing lane on the road to the grave.
Steeee-ress: We have a surplus of it. Despite all its conveniences, options and safety nets, modern life is a high-wire act of barely managed tension. Ativan and valerian are the M&M’s of the day.
You’d have to assume that a person canvassing her fellow Canadians about their stress levels would likely have an elevated level herself, so I’m going to come right out and say it: I am no stranger to stress. Despite living on a low-fat diet of coffee and fingernails, however, I figured I was doing as well, or better, than my neighbours.
True, there have been spells where I figured the nation should be holding a telethon to send me to a recovery clinic somewhere, but generally speaking, I’ve had little to stress about. According to a friend who moved to Canada from rural India, most Canadians are in the same boat. But that doesn’t seem to stop us.
To wit: I’m a healthy woman with symmetrical features, a support system of friends and family; a mother of two kids for whom I hold out reasonable hope they’ll make their way in the world. I get to wear high heels every once in a while and I laugh a considerable percentage of the time. Financially, the wolf is not at the door; I like my work but I wish it paid better, and I foresee no imminent catastrophe on my personal horizon.
Not exactly a stress stewpot, is it?
hat said, sometimes my shoulders lock up due to a miasma of free-floating anxiety. I can go into extended periods of sleeplessness while I battle dragons of self-doubt and recrimination. My doctor has said that, after decades of glutting my body on a diet of epinephrine and norepinephrine (also known as stress’s henchman, cortisol), my adrenals are about as useful as appendix. I’m not, as my personal poll indicates, alone.
So, I decided to check out just how bad my stress level really is. I began by taking the Yale Stress Center’s online test (yalestress.org).
I love multiple-choice quizzes — Always; Sometimes; Never — and I’d always wanted to go to Yale so, this was well matched with my need for delusional diversions. I usually tailor my answers in order to achieve a stellar result, but on this occasion, I was answering honestly.
I figured Yale would say, “Please, well-adjusted, happy person; go on your well-adjusted, happy way so that we can deal with the truly stressed.” But no.
According to the results, I am about 25% more stressed than the average person. And this was despite making considerably healthier life choices and making significantly fewer unhealthy choices. I can only imagine what the findings would have been if I’d answered in the affirmative to cocaine use.
So now I’m not only stressed, but I’m ticked off. Those snotty Ivy Leaguers can go drown in a vat of St. John’s wort tea, for I am an even-keeled marvel of self-possession. On the upside, scientists are saying that stress leads to cognitive impairment and memory loss, so perhaps I’ll forget about your daft test in no time at all. But before I forget, I should mention that stress can, and will, kill you. And it will kill you in a dozen ninja-like ways. It musters cancer cells, gastro-intestinal problems, infections, heart disease, diabetes. The list is endless. If it’ll kill you, stress has a unseen hand in it. Did you ever see an old Western where the canteen leaked out all of the water and then, when the settlers discover it, well — cue the buzzards — it’s just too dang late? That’s the stress scenario, in a nutshell. You need those stress chemicals for emergencies. In a word: overkill. That’s what happens when you misuse your stress hormones.
(You can see my time not spent at Yale has left me with a keen understanding of all things medical.)
Having had the grim result, I headed off to one of those very expensive grocery stores where they offer kale or beeswax candles at every aisle end. My first stop was the book section. Essentially, these types of emporiums offer two types of books: vegan books or stress books. In the stress section, there were cookbooks, herbal guides, nutritional guides, various physical and spiritual approaches to stress management, CDs and aromatherapy bibles. Armed with a nutritional guide, I meandered down the supplement aisle, buying a vowel every few steps. It seemed that there wasn’t a vitamin that was not desperately depleted by stress. Moving on, I picked up some Bitrex to inhibit nail-biting. I contemplated a herbal balm that was to be applied to my temples to foster a general calming. I kept strolling the aisles. I discovered I could buy products that guaranteed better sleep, better sex, better skin and a better aura. Chamomile tea, tempeh, nuts — lots of ’em for the selenium — into the basket. Even the bakery section advertised “a well-deserved break,” in the form of spelt scones with unsulphured, fair trade, range-free, Montessori-educated raisins.
My favourite product of all, however, was Bach Rescue Remedy Stress Relief Gum. Boasting a Prius load of purportedly beneficial floral extracts, the promise was that you could masticate your way to nirvana. Serenity for a mere $8 a pack? I had a dollar-off coupon so I added the gum to my arsenal. Personally, however, buying $8 gum is in itself stressful.
A few days later, well into my new program, I realized that I was still clenching my jaw. I decided to employ one of my personal favourite stress-busting tips: the readily available, relatively inexpensive, time-honoured hot bath.
As I lay in the steamy tub, I remembered a quotation: “There must be quite a few things that a hot bath won’t cure, but I don’t know many of them.”
I then I remembered who said this: Sylvia Plath.
My stress level just went to 12.
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