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Many of us live like Alice in Through the Looking-Glass, who must run as fast as she can just to stay in the same place. With money worries, job stress and family obligations vying for our time, it can seem, as the Red Queen puts it, that "if you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!"

Nearly a third of Canadians can relate to the Red Queen. Statistics Canada reports that 30 per cent of people aged 35 to 44 describe most days as stressful. The figure is higher in Toronto (43 per cent) and Montreal (32 per cent), while Vancouver (23 per cent) comes close to its "chillax" reputation. But that's only if having nearly 1 in 4 highly stressed adults is something to brag about.

From burnout to 'phantom vibrations'

Stress became a mainstream preoccupation in the 1980s – the age of big mergers and even bigger hair. But the fears about burnout in the Mulroney-Reagan era seem almost quaint compared with the fully wired tension and dread that many workers face today.

Arguably, the labour-saving devices and communications technology that promised to reduce effort, increase productivity – and let everyone log in to work from the beach – have only added to the pressures.

Smartphones are major culprits, according to psychologist Richard Balding at the University of Worcester in England. Although they help people keep on top of work projects, the devices make daily life more stressful because people compulsively check for new messages, alerts and updates, his research suggests.

Work demands are not to blame, Mr. Balding found. Instead, smartphone stress arises mainly from the urgency users feel to keep tabs on their ever-expanding virtual social lives.

It's not a trivial problem, according to his study of stress levels in 100 smartphone users, including university students, retail workers and public-sector employees. Some users in the study were so hooked that they reported feeling "phantom vibrations" from non-existent text messages.

"So many people have smartphones now that the effect they are having on their lives and the amount of time they are spending on them is, to be honest, quite scary," Mr. Balding told the Daily Mail earlier this month.

He urged organizations to encourage their employees to switch their phones off and cut the number of work e-mails sent after hours to reduce people's temptation to check their devices.

Nevertheless, he noted that smartphone use is bound to go up thanks to the endless supply of new apps. Among them is a plethora of stress-reduction widgets designed for smartphone use on the fly. But that's a technological irony for another day.

Dial-down strategy

Try laying off the Android or CrackBerry for a few hours each day, especially before bed. If you love your iPhone, question your loyalty (and try getting a real date). Hard-core addicts can start by white-knuckling it through a restaurant meal with friends without checking their mobiles. Google "Phone Stack game" to learn the rules. Resist temptation and dinner is free.

Stress Case is a new monthly column that examines our response to the fast-paced life of the 21st century.

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