A little more than a decade ago, Barb Overton was so paralyzed by stress she could barely leave the house.
Her marriage wasn’t working, her oldest daughter was ill and in and out of the hospital, and Barb had been diagnosed with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome — ailments she says were exacerbated by not dealing with the stress in her life. Too sick to work, she had to take a leave of absence from her job as a nurse.
In the midst of it, she saw an infomercial for relaxation tapes and out of desperation she picked up the phone and ordered the $300 set.
“The next morning I was like, ‘Oh what did I do?’” she remembers.
Items like the tapes Overton ordered and a host of other products and services aimed at calming us are at the core of what's becoming a booming business — the "stress industry." Americans will spend an estimated $14 billion fighting stress next year, according to Market Data. That’s up from the $11 billion a year we’re currently spending.
While a century ago, there wasn't even a word for what we call stress, today people can de-stress with their very own personal biofeedback machine. Stress balls are so common that they're sold in most drug stores. No time for yoga class? Relax with a meditation DVD at home. The promise of relief can even be found at the kitchen sink, in Palmolive's "anti-stress" dish soap. Increasingly, acupuncture, massage and talk therapy are covered by health insurance. Sephora, a national chain of beauty products, even sells a line designed to combat the effects of chronic stress on the skin, including an “anti-stress oral spray.”
But does any of it work? Can you really spray your stress away with a blast to your mouth? Or rub it out with a deep-tissue massage? Or wash it away as you do your dishes?
No quick fixes
One thing experts agree on is that there aren’t any quick fixes. But sometimes the act of just knowing you’re doing something to try to lower your stress can make a difference.
“Some products work because of the placebo effect,” says Dr. Paul Rosch, president of the American Institute of Stress in Yonkers, N.Y. “Part of the cure is the wish to be cured.”
When Overton's tapes arrived, she began listening to them each morning and night and found they calmed her. “It took me about six months [of regular use] to really relax …. But I couldn’t believe how well they worked.”
Today, the 47-year-old mother of nine in a blended family in Bellevue, Wash., says she still turns to the meditation tapes when she needs to feel calmer.
“I’m not totally gung ho with all alternative stuff, because I think some people are just trying to make money, but the mind is very, very powerful,” she says.
The evidence is often anecdotal as to how effective stress products and services are. Clinical studies have shown acupuncture and talk therapy to be effective in easing stress and anxiety, but few clinical studies have been done on other treatments such as aromatherapy, says Cherie Perez, a nurse at University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
Perez’s “day job” is working as a research nurse. On weekends, she volunteers at A Place of Wellness, a clinic where she teaches aromatherapy to cancer patients who are also undergoing traditional treatments.
At the clinic, she mixes oils to help patients cope with nausea, soothing sprays to help cool hot flashes and scents to calm anxiety about upcoming procedures and test results. Patients tell her it helps them cope — and she uses aromatherapy herself. She recommends misting the air with a lavender spray to create a sense of calm.
“There may not be any science at all to aromatherapy,” she says. “It may be about taking time for yourself.”
These days, we need that more than ever. Our high levels of anxiety may be good for the stress industry, but they're not good for us. Work-related stress alone comes with an estimated $300 billion a year price tag due to absenteeism, lost production, medical expenses, turnover and more, according to the American Institute of Stress.
Rosch blames our rising tension partly on information overload.
“Today you can contact anyone anywhere in the world at any time,” he says. “Whether you’re in the Sahara desert or outer space, someone can get you. There’s a lot more time urgency."
Some of us have been tense for so long we barely remember what it feels like to be relaxed. That’s where personal biofeedback devices can help, suggests Robert Schachter, a psychologist and faculty member of Mount Sinai School of Medicine who is working to develop a stress-management program.
Used correctly, they can help people figure out their stress triggers and recognize what calms them. Consumers can buy biofeedback devices in specialty stores and online for a range of prices, from less than $20 to hundreds.
When we’re stressed, we go into physical fight or flight mode, he says. “We experience increased blood flow, rapid breathing, lowered appetite, lower libido.”
In prehistoric times, these responses were perfectly suited to say, running into a saber tooth tiger. “After the tiger walks away, all these things came back to normal, but in a chronic stress situation [it doesn’t]. The tigers of today may be a boss, a financial situation, a lot of things — and we get stuck with a high stress reaction in a chronic way.”
Schachter says he uses deep breathing exercises and biofeedback to help patients recognize when they get to a relaxed state. Even stopping to relax for 20 minutes a couple times a day can help break the stress cycle, Schachter says.
One of his favorite de-stressers is simply taking a hot bath. For others, it might be stopping to practice deep breathing or listening to a soothing CD.
Regardless of how good a product may be, don’t expect your stress to melt away instantly, says Daniel Patton, co-owner of the online "mind & body self-improvement" company Luxe Vivant. He recalls one customer who returned a hypnosis CD saying it didn't work. She'd purchased it just the day before.
“As with everything, there’s really no magic pill …. It’s like exercise — you don’t just do it once,” he says.
Just feeling like you can do something to help yourself can weaken the grip of stress.
“It’s very hard to live life and avoid stress,” says Patton. “People die, things happen that are totally out of your control. It’s good to have a feeling that there are a lot of tools.”
Jennifer Pratt, a 33-year-old Seattle resident with a 9-month-old daughter, says she’s suffered from anxiety and occasional panic attacks since she was a child. In addition to anti-depressants, she also has tried “about 50 percent of the things out there for dealing with stress,” she says. She’s used stress balls, massage, yoga, talk therapy and visualization and meditation tapes.
But what's works best for her is free: exercise.
In fact, many of the best ways to fight stress don't cost a dime.
Rosch suggests taking time to list what stresses you and put them into two categories: the things you can change, and the things you can't, such as the death of a loved one. Take the list of the things you can do something about — and do it.
If your stress is caused by rush-hour traffic, ask to change your work schedule. Even if the boss says no, you can choose to use the time to listen to a book on tape or learn a foreign language, he says.
“You’ve turned something that was stressful into a partially enjoyable experience,” Rosch says.
Address the stress as soon as you can, Schachter says. Slow down and take some deep breathes, shut your eyes and let your body calm down.
As for various stress products, such as Sephora’s anti-stress oral spray, most of them probably won’t hurt you, experts agree. But don’t buy into any outrageous claims, especially supplements asserting users will shed pounds along with their stress, warns Rosch.
And for the others? You’ll have to experiment and find what works for you.
“Look at the research and if it can’t hurt you and might help you and is within your budget, try it,” says Rosch. “If you feel like it might help, it probably will.”