Pummel the stress

Boiling brain? Nails bitten to the quick? Ridiculously upset about trifles? Stress, the scourge of modern life, can be relieved by a country weekend, reports Belinda Morris
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This may be an an apocryphal story, though I have always believed it to be true. It concerns a journalist I once knew. Apparently he'd had a pretty bad week at work, which culminated on the Friday morning with the discovery that the fruits of his week's labour had been thrown away, accidentally, by the cleaner. This was before computers and "save" modes.

Anyway, he flipped, and threw his very heavy, pre-War typewriter through the (closed) window of his (third floor) office. History doesn't recall whether anyone was hurt.

I think he got into some trouble over the incident. Today, he'd have been sent to the company doctor who'd have diagnosed a bad case of executive stress.

Recently I've had cause to recall the unfortunate friend; I've just had one of those months, never mind weeks, and I know how he felt. There have been moments when I'd gladly have thrown the AppleMac through the window, but unplugging all the wires would have ruined the spontaneity - and I work alone at home, on the ground floor, so not much drama there.

Instead of sensibly releasing the tension, I was left with a broiling brain, with my ears touching my shoulders, nails bitten to the quick and a throbbing sensation behind my eyes that was making visibility difficult. I was feeling pretty sorry for myself. But in my more lucid moments I was disconcerted by the level to which I was sinking over what were, in the great scheme of things, relatively minor problems. Even the cat was getting short shrift. It was obviously stress.

What I needed, I decided, was some tender, loving care, and since my husband was more stressed than I was and my mother was having a new kitchen fitted, I decided that I had to find it elsewhere. I called Grayshott Hall.

If I was a pathetic sight for the girls behind the reception desk of this celebrated Surrey health spa, they didn't let on. They're used to it. I was just one of many who turn up, not to lose weight (though that would have been nice) but to inject some peace and sanity back into their frazzled lives. They arrive, says the guest liaison manager, Penny Lea, still in their suits, mobile phones on stand-by, and can look shockingly close to breakdown as they grip the edge of the desk. And that's just the women. The men, poor things, are worse.

Grayshott is unusual in that it attracts far more men than most of the other spas around the country, encouraged perhaps by a range of non-girlie activities (golf, snooker, that sort of thing), a reasonable attitude to vices (there's a smoking room) and a reputation for being sympathetic rather than bullying and judgemental. It was the sympathy that appealed to me. I wanted my stress to be soothed away, not beaten into submission by a bossy matron or (worse) a personal trainer.

On arrival at the formal Victorian country house, the fevered brow is initially soothed by a consultant, who spends a good many minutes coaxing details out of you that will help them to help you. I was a pushover: I told her everything, glad of the opportunity to talk about myself. Being weighed was less fun, but blood pressure was reassuringly (if boringly) normal. A chat with a dietician, Paul Gilbert, revealed that like many desk-bound workers I probably suffer from the 4.30pm crisis - an insubstantial lunch leading to an afternoon craving for chocolate, because of low blood sugar levels, and then a headache. Grayshott guests, whether they need to lose weight or not, are given a good talking-to on the subject of diet; most leave with the determination to make lifestyle changes.

It also transpires that stressed-out executives deal with their problem in different ways while at the house. Some head straight for the gym, where they tread machines and pump iron for the entire stay; others make for the nearest person in a white coat and allow their tensions to be pummelled away. The consultant and I decided that the latter course would be my best route to health and inner happiness.

As with every guest, a suitable selection of treatments was chosen for me, based on my general level of fitness, health and personal aims. The menu was long - around 60 options, including an impressive line-up of alternative therapies such as acupuncture and osteopathy. But for executive, or any other kind of stress, the real treat is holistic massage - the one that treats "the whole", making the connection between the physical body and the emotional state.

Maggie looked like the kind type, but looks can be deceiving. I lay face down on the bed and waited for the pain to start. It didn't happen. Instead, to the mellifluous accompaniment of New Age music, my body was treated to a series of movements (based apparently on Oriental forms and energy techniques). Soft, quivering shakes, the gentlest of prods, sensual kneading - swift, then slow, manipulations by deft fingers seemed to hover over my skin, and gradually the worries that had been looming in my head all evaporated, and I fell asleep.

The next day, after a lovely, drippy steam bath, a pummelly sort of hearty massage, a scrub-down and soak in a seaweed bath and an experimental bout of reflexology, I was forced to retire with the mother of all headaches. This is a warning to any other would-be stress-busters: it's only to be expected. But by the end of the day, after a soothing facial that concentrated on my battered temples, I felt miraculously better.

My last treatment sounded like torture but turned out to be bliss. Cranial osteopathy, once employed to treat just the sick, is now recognised also for its powers of relaxation, and it proved to be the perfect note to end on. Elaine's firm but sensitive fingertips can pick up the rhythmic flow of the fluid contained within the hollow cavities of the brain and by slight pressure changes can relieve many disorders such as migraine, sinus conditions and digestive problems. Sounds like magic - and it was. It was a brighter-eyed, bushier-tailed woman who left Grayshott, after only two days (four is the recommended dose) and if I'd only managed to squeeze in the time for a manicure, my transformation would have been complete

Grayshott Hall, near Hindhead, Surrey GU26 6JJ (01428 604 331; fax: 01428 605 463). Two-day course, pounds 150 per night; four-day course, pounds 140 per night.