Rachel Grunwell

Rachel Grunwell is a fitness writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Anxiety in NZ a 'trend that needs stopping' - expert

Anxiety is rising to become one of the biggest burdens on our health services. Kids as young as eight are afflicted. Rachel Grunwell chats with a professor, psychologist, meditation coach and a sufferer about this inner turmoil.

Auckland mum Jaime Stevenson was once so anxious she went eight entire days without sleep. Her brain kept telling her "I can't sleep" and her body would shake and quiver, she'd get heart palpitations, cold sweats, her stomach would churn and "whole body panic attacks would take over".

This was two years ago, a busy time of life with two very young children. Life was spiralling out of control. So with the support of her family she sought help and therapists assisted her with cognitive behavioural therapy and drug treatment.

A therapist taught Jaime ways to address unhelpful thoughts, plus strategies to be calm. She learnt anxiety is over-estimating the "threat" and under-estimating "how you will cope".

Now to keep in control she meditates, employs breathing techniques, does yoga, takes magnesium daily and runs marathons. She also enjoys helping guide disabled athletes with their running training through the Achilles charity.

"Running keeps me sane, cleanses my mind. That's my space. That's where my problems get solved," she says. "When I put on my running shoes I start belly breathing and relaxing..."

Stevenson appears confident and chatty but says she has been anxious for many years. It started, therapists think, from holding onto negative energy as a youngster and letting that build up.


Running keeps Jaime Stevenson sane.

Thankfully she knows how again to reach "that beautiful, lovely sleep".

She says people shouldn't be afraid to ask experts for help.

"They were my saviours".

Sufferers should not feel embarrassed, she says, it's simply a chemical imbalance.

Stevenson is not alone - a rising number of New Zealanders are struggling with anxiety and depression (symptoms that almost always present together).

Anxiety and depression are on track to become one of the biggest burdens on New Zealand's health services by 2020 - behind heart disease, strokes and cancers, according to Tony Dowell, Professor of General Practice at Otago University.

"It's a trend that needs stopping," he says.

"These feelings can be very disabling and crippling," says Prof Dowell, adding anxiety can spiral into agitation, low-mood, sadness and severe depression.

Anxiety affects kids as young as eight (about things like monsters and the dark). That's a normal part of childhood, but children can become distressed if they're not "managed well".

Teenagers too can get anxious. Thankfully teachers and adults are better at spotting symptoms and taking them seriously.

Those aged between 20 and 50 often struggle with relationships and family pressures, while mature folk can get "unsettled" too.

However, anxiety can be "very treatable", says Prof Dowell.

Kiwis should talk more to friends and family about feelings. Another helpful skill is recognising the problems causing anxiety and prioritising the issues so everything is not over-whelming and can be targeted in steps.

Help for mild symptoms is accessible through websites and GPs are now well trained in spotting symptoms and can give clients "a good hearing". GPs are also a great "gateway" for further help if required, while counsellors and clinical psychologists can use talk therapies to drug treatments like prozac for those most afflicted.

Prof Dowell says there's a new trend towards shorter periods of therapy (about three sessions), which is now regarded to be highly effective - "so people shouldn't be frightened that they will be working in therapy for years".

Clinical psychologist, Dr Natalie Flynn, says mindfulness helps many of her clients.
Mindfulness is paying attention, on purpose, to our inner and outer experiences - rather than pushing them away. People can learn to relate to their emotions in a different way and be in control.

This was once used predominantly in the East in Buddhism, but is now becoming popular in Western society.

"People come and see me in pain and I explain that this is research-based and works for many people," she says.

Local website Calm suggests taking five minutes to be still, smile, and tell yourself to be mindful and feel compassion. Avoid distractions or feeling stressed. The website recommends joining a meditation group to enhance your practice.

One meditation group in Auckland is taken by Erin O'Hara, who is noticing an increase in teenage and female clients looking for tools to combat "every day life stresses". She recommends five minutes meditation daily for "balance".


Photo / 123rf

Dr Flynn says anxiety has been around since caveman days, when being anxious kept us alive from predators.

But now, instead of being anxious about fleeing something like a tiger, we're fretting about daily stresses like being late for work not getting through our to-do list. Sometimes the anxiety can do much more harm than the trigger.

For further help with anxiety and depression visit www.depression.org.nz and www.mentalhealth.org.nz.

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