On the outside, Nigel Sadlier and his family had the ideal Bay lifestyle: a Matua home near the water, holidays to Queenstown and the luxury of a single breadwinner earning six figures. But inside, Nigel was falling apart. For six-and-a-half years, he says he worked long hours as a manager and was struggling with stress.
"I internalise everything. I was suffering from a lot of stomach upsets, a lot of anxiety attacks. I'd never had that before. I was rushed to hospital a couple times. I thought I was having heart attacks, but it was anxiety."
Nigel says he suffered a "massive mental breakdown" and eventually quit his job. "I would've liked to continue working in a lesser capacity, but looking back, I was in no state to. I was completely lost. It had really broken me."
Nigel's case is an extreme example, but new research shows stress is ageing us beyond our years. A study commissioned by insurance company Sovereign shows stressors, including putting work and others' needs ahead of our own, can add as many as 20 "penalty years" of age.
Penalty years are added through an online tool called a health age generator assessing factors such as sleep, alcohol consumption, exercise, eating habits and family disease history.
Overall, the generator showed 1200 Kiwis surveyed averaged two penalty years. Bay of Plenty respondents averaged three penalty years (see graphic).
Bay of Plenty District Health Board's Dr Elizabeth Spellacy says though people often think of psychological stress, the impact of mood and reactive lifestyle impacts many body systems.
"Our bodies have evolved systems to cope with challenges but these can be overwhelmed and become counter-productive."
University of Waikato senior social work lecturer Sonya Hunt, who teaches at Waiariki Bay of Plenty Polytech in Tauranga, says stress manifests in immediate signs like digestive upsets, headaches, muscle tension, sleeplessness, and over or under-eating.
"Longer-term, there are more chronic illnesses like heart disease, cancer, diabetes... We've seen real links between chronic stress and physical symptoms." Sonya says society promotes individualisation of problems like stress, saying, in effect, "It's your problem and your role to fix it". "But a lot of times a societal role is necessary.
Chronic stress is costly for individuals, families, whanau, for organisations and society, from a micro to a macro level."
Some days are good and some days are bad...it's exhausting.
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Nigel says his family has gone from living comfortably on his salary to existing partly on government (WINZ) subsidies and income from consulting and car repair jobs. He says the family's savings are depleted, and he gets rejected for jobs because he's over-qualified. "I struggle to get words out some days.
To contemplate that I could go back into any sort of corporate work again, it just seems so far away for me." Nigel says he learned only during his breakdown he had a long history of depression. He's taking medication, which, despite side effects, helps enormously. So has counselling.
His wife of 13 years, Christine, is grateful for a strong network of friends, family and neighbours. Still, she says the situation can be lonely. "It's a time to actually ask for help and be quite humbled...normally, we've always been on the other end helping everyone else, which is what I really prefer doing."
Christine says she and Nigel have been open with their 9-year-old and 11-year-old, telling them Dad has ups and downs. "Some days are good and some days are bad...it's exhausting."
Life A Plenty counsellor Les Simmonds says stress is a response to a demand or threat, and can be positive when it galvanises productivity. The fight or flight response causes the body to release hormones adrenaline and cortisol. "It's helpful if we see a car coming towards us...we can run like hell. But ongoing stressors can really create problems."
Dr John Medina, author of the bestseller Brain Rules, writes long-term stress is bad. "The brain is designed to handle stress that lasts seconds, not years." One person's stressor is another's shrug. Counsellor Les Simmonds agrees, giving the example of a demanding, difficult boss. He says some employees might feel anxious and defeated. "Others might say, 'Oh, he or she is so demanding,' and they don't worry about it."
Experts say technology helps and hurts stress levels. Social work lecturer Sonya Hunt says the internet can be a connector and timesaver. But social media can also create feelings of competition. "You look at Facebook or Instagram and see how successful people are. The filters can come off, there's discrimination, destructive commentary and bullying."
Healthy diet, exercise, adequate sleep, tuning out technology, limiting alcohol, and mindfulness meditation are effective (see sidebar). But often we turn to quick fixes. "If you're forever on your phone or internet because it takes you away from your hassles, watching TV or drinking too much, it doesn't help," Les says.
Take a stress inventory, to find energy drains. Pause to value simple things. Eighteen months after quitting his high-pressure job, Nigel's not the man he used to be. But he can enjoy moments and revel in completing small jobs. His own black dog has been a blessing. "We unexpectedly had a puppy arrive not long after my breakdown... I don't know how I would've gotten through the last year without Otis."
What's your health age? Take the survey health.sovereign.co.nz
Mental health at work
The Health and Safety Work Act 2015 took effect in April. The law singles out mental health issues, defining "health" as including mental health. Employers and organisations must consider mental health of workers when planning a safe workplace. Counsellor Les Simmonds says mental health has been part of employment law for a few years. "It's been strengthened, and hopefully more people are aware of it."
*Relax with calming activities
*Practice mindfulness meditation
*Talk to someone
*Get a pet
*Write it down
*Take to cigarettes, caffeine, alcohol or snack foods
Excerpted from healthnavigator.org.nz