IT IS Valentine’s Day on Thursday, which may or may not mean anything to you. To me, above all, Valentine’s Day means overwhelming anxiety. My heart races, my palms itch and I want to hide until every cutesy card, heart-shaped chocolate and smiling teddy bear is out of sight. Like the prickly vine of a rose bush on a barbed-wire fence, Valentine’s Day and stress became one and the same when I arrived at boarding school at the age of seven.
At lunchtime every Valentine’s Day, one of the mistresses stood at the head of the dining room and called out the names of the girls who had received cards and gifts from the nearby boys’ hostel. On hearing their names, the "beloved ones" arose and, like little goddesses with invisible wings, glided through the room to claim their offerings. Few had the grace to blush or feign surprise as the rest of us, lumpen mortals invited to the ball but prohibited from dancing, looked on in envy.
Then, when I was about 11, my turn to join the ranks of the desirable and adored, it seemed, arrived.
"Penny Haw," boomed the mistress’s voice. I leapt to my feet, almost knocking a chair over in my haste and began the walk of fame to claim my gift. I don’t remember breathing as I floated across the room but my head pounded: "A boy likes me. A boy likes me."
As I approached, the teacher held out a little blue plastic Smurf with a big red heart on his chest. A small card was tied around his neck. Before placing it in my hand, she saw what was written on the card. "Oh, look," she trumpeted for all to hear. "It’s from your mother!"
If I’d had a smartphone when I was growing up and access to the kind of technology around today, I probably would’ve downloaded one of the many free stress-management apps available to help get me through Valentine’s Day. There are apps to track stress, help you relax, provide exercise suggestions and lead you in meditation.
But what I would’ve really appreciated back then is an initiative recently introduced by Canadian Dalhousie University. Based on research that shows pets reduce stress levels and improve their owners’ health, the university went into a partnership with Therapeutic Paws of Canada to set up a "Puppy Room" in which it has made three dogs available to stressed students for cuddling and play time.
Although the centre is called the Puppy Room, the "therapists" aren’t puppies, they’re trained "therapy dogs" because young, untrained dogs are inclined to become overwhelmed by crowds. And crowds there are. The first day the Puppy Room was open, almost 500 students arrived for their dose of destressing à la dog. The success of the initiative spread so quickly that other institutions have subsequently opened animal therapy centres of their own. But, in case there isn’t a Puppy Room near you and you feel as stressed by Valentine’s Day as I do, I’ve written us a poem:
Roses are red,
Puppies are cute.
Tomorrow will come,
But I’ll apply mute.
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