Relax, Inc.: Inside the burgeoning wellness industry
Inner peace sells, but who's buying? We all are. A seasoned, stress-busting insider offers insights on the modern industry of peddling wellness
It used to be that massage therapy was for injured athletes, psychotherapy was for the mentally ill, and boxing was for, um, boxers. Not anymore. Mom goes to the boxing gym once a week, Dad has a standing massage appointment, and the kids are in semi-monthly therapy.
This is because Mom, Dad and kids are more stressed out than they used to be. In their quest for solace, they've created demand for a product as modern as the iPad. Professionals have arisen to supply services to fill that demand; businesses, in the form of gyms, spas and counseling centers, are springing up to churn out happy customers.
Welcome to Stress, Inc., the business of undoing the damage people and societies do to themselves. I'm a cog in this giant machine: I'm a yoga teacher. When I'm not writing, I'm coaxing people to chant, pretend they're contortionists or simply sit still - all for the sake of a little peace.
It came to me one night during Savasana - that's trade parlance for "corpse pose," or lying down on your back with your eyes closed at the end of a class. Looking around the floor packed with spent, sweaty bodies, I realized: This is why they're here. They need time to lie still and do nothing, just as they need their massage therapist's help to relax their muscles or their boxing coach's permission to punch the bejeezus out of something. I'm part of an emerging industry, a wellness complex - one whose foothold in Las Vegas is anything but coincidental.
All amped up and nowhere to run
"I recently read that people today have 1,000 more choices per day than their grandparents had," says Charles Regin, assistant professor of health promotion at the UNLV School of Community Sciences. He teaches stress management not just to university students, but also to high-strung corporate types from global companies such as AT&T and Nike.
Regin is explaining to me why people are more stressed out today than they used to be. He blames the dysfunctional relationship between human impatience and technological ingenuity.
"We used to have three TV channels, plus PBS," he says. "Now, we have 900 or 1,000...Yet, people will scan those 900 channels and say, 'There's nothing on.'"
In other words, we crave immediate gratification, but the tools we invent to satisfy that craving fail us. Nowhere is that more apparent than Las Vegas, a city built upon the promise of continually available options for self-indulgence, yet the city that Forbes magazine in August named the No. 1 most stressful in the nation.
Forbes based its ranking on the criteria of high unemployment, long commute times, long work hours, limited access to health care, poor physical health and lack of exercise. In addition to the then-14.5 percent (now 14.3 percent) unemployment rate and nation's highest metropolitan foreclosure rate, the Forbes article also pointed to a stunning lack of exercise among Las Vegans as a contributing factor in its ranking. According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey, nearly 30 percent of Sin City residents reported not having exercised at all during the preceding month.
Forbes' assessment followed an even more depressing one in February 2009 by Bloomberg Businessweek, which ranked Las Vegas the seventh unhappiest city in the U.S. based on rates of depression, suicide, divorce, crime, unemployment, population loss, job loss, weather and green space. Evaluating 50 major cities, Businessweek found that Las Vegas was first, sixth and ninth, respectively, in suicide, divorce and crime.
Framing this dismal local picture is the creeping malaise of the human race. In 1998, the World Health Organization estimated that approximately one-third of the world population may suffer from mild depression (often related to stress) at some point in their lives.
Ron Lawrence, director of the Community Counseling Center of Southern Nevada, believes our society's evolution has played a significant role in the general rise of stress. Ancient humans developed the fight-or-flight response as protection from predators, rival tribes and other threats. Hormones that quicken the reflexes flood the body, launching us into Superman-like action.
"In nature," Lawrence explains, "we had balance; adrenaline would trigger the flight, and we'd run it off." But beginning with the Industrial Revolution, our world rapidly became safer, while our biological systems have struggled to adapt. Stressful situations still trigger the fight-or-flight reflex, Lawrence says, but we rarely run it off. The result is a perpetual anxiety state.
Could this explain the paradox of my overflowing yoga classes in the city that has become the Phuket of the 2008 economic tsunami? Even this past July and August, the perennial dead zone of the yearly schedule at the studio where teach, people lined up to pay 18 bucks a pop for yoga class - not just mine, but others', too. It seems the most stressed out and unemployed people in the country are somehow finding room in their budget to work out their fight-or-flight angst.
De-stress me, please
Of course, it could just be my specific situation - the popularity of yoga, or the reputation of the studio where I teach. Not according to the therapists and fitness instructors I talked to. They say the stress relief business is booming.
The waiting list for services at Lawrence's agency has gone from 30, which was typical pre-recession, to more than 170 at present, he estimates. "We're constantly adding groups," he notes. "We have 52 groups now, up from 40 last year."
Boe's Boxing Gym is recovering from a dip in demand that began in 2009, says owner Steve Boe. Having managed to stay open while a few other gyms around the city went under, he's now up to 60-70 clients a week, on average - nearly pre-recession numbers.
Melanie Andrade reports she has 160 people signed up for unlimited access to the 29 classes per week offered at her Jazzercise studio in Henderson. (The midmorning Monday class I observed in August had 35 people in it.) She says attendance has increased steadily since she opened in January 2010.
How many people go to the gym to relieve stress? Boe believes they all do, based on anecdotal evidence. Andrade knows for certain: Out of the 51 surveys her Jazzercisers completed during July and August, 36 named "stress" as a reason for taking classes.
With demand comes supply. If, like me, you could swear that strip mall massage parlors are multiplying like rabbits, you're right. Massage therapy instructor Penne Lohr told me the school where she teaches, European School of Massage, is cranking out a dozen graduates or more per 640-hour session today, compared with four or five when she started there approximately two years ago.
Lohr's observation is backed up by data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which estimated there were 1,540 massage therapists in Nevada in 2009, up from 1,440 in 2008 and 1,130 in 2007.
Other stress-relief fields show similar increases. According to the U.S. Census Bureau's Economic Census, the number of non-physician mental health firms in Nevada rose from 54 in 2002 to 100 in 2007.
Ask anyone in these fields, though, and they'll tell you they wish their jobs were unnecessary. Far from profiting off the misery of others, stress relief professionals see themselves as part of the solution. The problem, they say, is that people don't take care of themselves.
Fight for your right to feel good
...Unless, of course, their Blackberry tells them to. Something about having a time and place designated for stress relief seems to be part of the current appeal.
Andrade thinks it's because places like hers offer solace and community. "I've had students going through divorce or breast cancer tell me it (Jazzercise) helps them get back into the swing of life," she says.
Boe, who got a bachelor's in psychology from the University of Nebraska and worked in child protective services before opening his gym five years ago, says boxing clubs offer places for latchkey kids to avoid risky activities, whether that's experimenting with drugs or forming emo bands.
"We focus on kids here, because we want to teach them constructive ways to deal with their anger early on."
Where classes offer support, individual sessions promise peace. Lohr believes the rising demand for massage derives from its promise of quiet time in a world where "we're bombarded with stimuli that stress us out 24-7."
Regin says herd mentality plays a role in the rising number of people flocking to stress relief sites. "People tend to do what their best friend is doing," he says. "You hear about enough people discovering yoga, and you decide to try it yourself."
He also thinks the recession has motivated people to try things they wouldn't have done before. Whereas people used to get rewarded for working hard and following the rules, he says, today they're finding they did everything they were told to - and lost their job or home or family anyway.
"So maybe all the old rules were never really applicable," Regin says. "They're saying, 'I don't want it to be the way it was before. I'm going to counseling. I'm going to yoga. I'm going to the gym. I want to be a better me.'"
Lawrence agrees: "People are re-authoring their lives in some way, and there's no recipe book to do that, so they're trying new things. We have CEOs coming in here who've lost everything and would never have sought therapy before."
Having an appointment helps give people permission to seek the help they need. Contemporary Western society, Lawrence notes, tends to reward productivity and scorn laziness.
"People are so over-booked, and they feel guilty about taking the time out of their schedule for self-care. If they don't schedule it as an appointment, it will slip away," he says.
Are you stressed? Are you? ARE YOU? WELL?
Like any good corporation, Stress, Inc. has effective marketing. Organizations such as the Yoga Alliance (which lists "stress relief" as the No. 1 reason to try yoga on its website), the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy and the American Massage Therapy Association have invested in public awareness campaigns designed to make sure the public knows the benefits of their members' services and where to find them.
Lohr cites the prolific Massage Envy as a model for the marketing approach taught by the American Massage Therapy Association, which aims to convince people that a regular massage is part of a healthy lifestyle.
"There's always going to be an opportunity for those businesses, now that people are aware what they need to feel good," she says. Skeptics argue that too much inward focus on the self does more harm than good. In his blog Outrospection, writer Roman Krznaric suggests that life's meaning is more likely to be found by devoting oneself to a cause than by spending any number of hours on an analyst's couch. (Some analysts agree; see the sidebar for more on that.)
Regin wonders if a little stress is really such a bad thing, anyway. "Stress is life; life is stress," he says. "It's a series of opportunities and events from which we can learn, or which we can ignore. We repeat the lessons we're supposed to learn in life until we get it. Some of us are just slow learners, I guess."
The fact that people are slow learners is perhaps the best argument in favor of professionalizing stress relief. I realize this after all the research and interviews and writing are done, and, weeks later, I'm back to observing my students in Savasana. As busy attorneys and blackjack dealers and property managers, they may find time to walk the dog or have lunch in the park with a friend, but they certainly won't manage to learn the basic Sanskrit, human anatomy and yoga philosophy that brings them to this blissfully alpha-waved state. That's my job.
And if it helps bring us all a little closer to the day when our nervous systems have caught up to our survival skills, I'm happy to do it.