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How to fight back against stress this winter

The science is clear: stress can kill, but it doesn't have to. Plus, seven ways to find your thrills outdoors this winter

Nov 6, 2013

by Robin Schroffel

Taking it easy is sometimes easier said than done. For many, the art of slowing down feels next to impossible – when you finally have some free time, you’re still feeling too stressed to enjoy it.

This is a bigger problem than it might sound. Stress is a pervasive health issue in Canada. The 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey released by Statistics Canada in June found that 30 per cent of Canadians aged 35 to 54 consider most of their days extremely stressful. With research linking stress to a host of medical issues such as high blood pressure and heart disease, that high number is a problem.

According to Dr. Badri Rickhi, director of the Canadian Institute of Natural and Integrative Medicine and recipient of the 2009 Dr. Rogers Prize for his integrative approach to clinical medicine, our high-stress lifestyle is in part a cultural phenomenon. “North Americans are the most stressed,” he says.

What’s worse, he says we tend to sabotage ourselves in the interventions to stress that we choose. “Stress is very high in North America, and the ways of understanding it and trying to cope with it and how we try to solve it can sometimes be so burdensome they create more stress,” Rickhi says.

The challenge in trying to deal with that is that the science on stress is still in a state of flux. According to Rickhi, a growing body of research suggests that emotions begin not in the mind but in the heart, challenging one of science’s core beliefs and lending more credence to Eastern traditions like Ayurveda, which identify the heart as the seat of consciousness.

Given this research, it makes sense that working on the body through therapies complementary to usual medical practice can be helpful in managing stress. According to Jeff Moggach, chair of the massage therapy program at MacEwan University, massage therapy has been found to lower levels of cortisol, the hormone secreted during stress as a part of the “fight or flight” response in the body. Other documented post-massage benefits include lower blood pressure, decreased oxygen consumption by the body, and increased feelings of well-being.

Moggarch recommends seeking out a registered massage therapist who has completed two years of training – the standard in provinces where the practice is regulated. And when time commitment is an issue, as it often is, take heart: Moggarch says these benefits are provided even with a 15-minute neck and shoulder massage. “The effects of that 15- to 20-minute massage are quite profound,” he says.

However, like Rickhi, Moggach warns that treating the symptoms is never a be-all, end-all solution. “The massage will help keep stress in check, but you’ll also have to practice some other self care,” he says. Luckily, you already have the tools to get you started – just breathe.

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Photographs courtesy of Yamnuska Mountain Adventures; Claire Dibble; Cold Fire Creek Dogsledding; Winter Sport Institute; Mad Dogs and Englishmen; Medicine River Soap Company; and Nature Lites
Prefer a rush of adrenaline to a meditative moment?

Find your thrills outdoors this winter – Alberta’s got plenty of activities so exhilarating you won’t even notice the chill

Cold Climb
For most, the beauty of the frozen waterfalls and glacial ice of the Canadian Rockies is something best enjoyed from a distance. That is, unless you spend a winter weekend mastering the basics of ice climbing with Yamnuska Mountain Adventures. Learning about knots, harnesses, crampons and movement, you’ll have the chance to exercise your new ice-climbing skills in Canmore, Kananaskis or Banff. No previous climbing experience is necessary – the course is tailored to individual ability.

$325 per person plus tax

Lift and Glide
There’s nothing like fresh powder and mountain air, and it’s even better when you and your travel companions have it all to yourselves. Departing from Golden, B.C. (140 kilometres west of Banff), the exclusive packages offered by Purcell Heli-Skiing include six runs, two private guides, safety and ski equipment rental, lunch, and an après-ski platter. With 250 named runs at their disposal with terrain ranging from high alpine bowls to gladed subalpine forest, there’s endless variety and freedom at hand.

Daily rates for their exclusive package (which includes six runs with two private guides) range from $945 to $1,580 per person depending on the size of the group

Moonlight Mile
Journey through the freshly fallen snow by the light of the full moon near Jasper, under the power of a team of huskies. Cold Fire Creek Dogsledding’s Moonlight Run, available only on the full moon and the two nights preceding, takes a maximum group of 10 on a three-hour, 18-kilometre journey into another world, one dominated by the silhouettes of tall trees, glistening crystalline ice, and silence. Contemplate the majesty of nature as you thaw out around a campfire with snacks and hot toddies.

$300 per person plus tax

Ruggedly Clean
Some things are just better when they’re kept simple. Red Deer’s Medicine River Soap Company fits this mould, offering a line of handcrafted, all-natural soaps infused with a nostalgic feel. The Man Package includes a tin of Grand Central Shave, a moisturizing shaving soap made with lemongrass and bentonite clay, along with four pleasantly rustic bars, each between five and six ounces: gritty tombstone-esque exfoliator the Rugged Man; spicy Danny Boy, made with goat’s milk; earthy Patchouli; and Gunpowder, an antiseptic and deodorant bar made with tea tree oil, coffee and peppermint.


Bobsleighs away
The legacy of the 1988 Winter Olympic Games lives on along the adrenaline-inducing 1.4-kilometre bobsleigh track at Calgary’s Canada Olympic Park. From December 7 onward this year, the Winter Sport Institute is offering the public a chance to experience this thrilling sport firsthand. A professional driver takes you and up to two guests through 14 tight turns at speeds of up to 120 kilometres per hour, for a 60-second ride so thrilling you’ll never forget the rush it brings.


Learn to mush
Originating in Scandinavia, the relatively new sport of skijor combines cross-country skiing with dogsledding and is growing in popularity both among recreational and competitive athletes. Learn how it’s done with a two-day clinic from Canmore’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen. These clinics, staged monthly in the winter, include classroom, skills and touring sections, as well as all necessary skijor equipment. Bring your favourite canine or borrow one from the company’s own stable of enthusiastic pups.

$350 per person plus tax

A warm glow
Create an atmosphere of warmth and comfort with a simple beeswax candle. Calgary’s Nature Lites crafts its products from pure Alberta beeswax produced in the southern part of the province; the smokeless, dripless candles emit negative ions while burning, helping to purify the air. They also have a sweet, subtle honey scent that’s hard to resist. Nature Lites votive candles burn for 12 hours, while the Bee Tower, nearly 10 inches tall, will burn for 200.

$3, votive; $40, Bee Tower


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