A New Age anti-stress treatment links the inner quest for peace with the latest software. Sarah Lonsdale goes on a trip
WILD FLOWER Cottage is deep in the heart of the Devon countryside. Rain drips from the apple trees in the garden, which slopes down to three ponds where ducks are gently quacking. A fire crackles in the grate and the tinkling strains of New Age music issue into the room. It is in this idyllic setting that Marie Ricketts and Ron Atkin practise their peculiar form of stress therapy, combining the latest computer technology with relaxation methods used by the ancient Egyptians.

The computer program the pair use, called RelaxPlus, is used in hospital cardiology departments to help people with heart conditions and high blood pressure to relax and reduce their blood pressure without the use of drugs. Marie and Ron have adapted its use for general stress reduction, and so far are the only practitioners to use it in a non-hospital environment.

The "patient" sits in front of the computer screen, with two electrodes attached to his or her fingers to measure electro-thermal and chemical changes in the skin. The computer asks the patient to complete various tasks, such as tensing and flexing muscles; rapidly moving limbs about; deep breathing; thinking of something that makes you angry; concentrating on soothing words such as "harmony". On the screen, a line either dips, if the exercises make you feel stressed, or climbs, if you are relaxed.

Finally, the computer presents you with a moving picture of a fish, which, according to how relaxed you are, swims along and turns into a mermaid, then a flaxen-haired maiden, then an angel and finally a star. The more stressed you are, the harder it is for your fish to make his journey.

It took me ages before finally my fish became a star. Just as it was evolving into a higher being, back it would go into the sea, as my thoughts strayed to my overdraft or mortgage, and the fact that my car was due for its MOT, worries that we all have to live with these days.

The next stage of the programme involves learning how to relax and de- stress so that in future the fish becomes a star quicker. This is where Ron comes in. "The main problem people have these days is that they have lost the ability to relax properly," he says. "Most forms of meditation and relaxation involve emptying the mind completely. But, really, people have to go beyond that, find their inner landscapes."

Ron sends people on a journey to find inner peace, a technique he has learnt by reading how the ancient Egyptians relaxed and meditated. It is also similar to how ancient tribes such as the Bushmen of Southern Africa and Indians of the Southern American jungles enter a trance-like state through controlling their minds.

Having been told to breathe from my diaphragm, not my chest, I lay down and shut my eyes. My journey started with Ron putting me in a flower-strewn meadow. He asked what I could see and where I wanted to go.

Many people here find progress very difficult. On their journeys they encounter unclimbable walls, thick patches of mist, fierce animals, sinking mud, all representing fears and phobias they have to overcome before they can find peace of mind. If you encounter problems, Ron gently suggests ways of getting round them. Could the fierce animals be shrunk? Can you walk through the wall? Ron does not hypnotise you, but the effect seems similar to mild anaesthesia.

I ended up, having crossed a river and walked up a hill, on the top of a mountain with commanding views over what looked uncannily like the Lake District. Then Pegasus the flying horse took me into outer space, where we floated around for a while and I ended up going back to earth and curling up on a sofa with my husband. All without the use of mind-bending drugs, honest. I "woke up" feeling relaxed, but also alert.

Marie, who began her medical career as a cholesterol-measuring technician, and who found that cholesterol build-up is linked to a stressful existence as much it is to eating red meat and butter, then asked me to repeat the tasks she had set me.

Surprise surprise, my stress levels were much lower and my fish became an angel in no time at all. Marie told me that I must remember that feeling I had standing on top of the mountain, and to go on the journey again, for about five or ten minutes each day, if the benefits were to do me any long-term good.

Does it really work or is it all New Age mumbo-jumbo? Well, I can't argue with the computer's new analysis of my stress levels, and I did feel bright- eyed and calm afterwards. But maybe it was just the gentle quacking of ducks and rain dripping off the apple trees.

One session (which is usually enough unless you have serious problems) costs pounds 50. Contact Marie Ricketts on 01409 261480

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