Age of anxiety: The damaging effects of stress and how to reduce it

By Dawn Picken

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New research finds stressful lifestyles mean Kiwis are an average two years older, biologically, than our actual age. Work, money and relationship worries, over consumption of alcohol and other risky behaviours can make our lives shorter and less fulfilling. Dawn Picken speaks to doctors, counsellors and frazzled Bay residents who say we must take stress more seriously.
Joy Dorfliger offers walking therapy in the Redwoods. She says a client has yet to take up the offer, but thinks it could be especially helpful for people uncomfortable with face-to-face therapy. PHOTO/STEPHEN PARKER
Joy Dorfliger offers walking therapy in the Redwoods. She says a client has yet to take up the offer, but thinks it could be especially helpful for people uncomfortable with face-to-face therapy. PHOTO/STEPHEN PARKER

LISA Berndt had a good job leading two teams, plus a home with her husband and young daughter.

But while the Rotorua resident was gaining professional status, she was losing her health. "My digestion crapped out...I couldn't eat well and had a sore stomach."

Lisa says a doctor diagnosed her with reflux, but medicine didn't help. In 2014, she was diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder and discovered on her own she had adrenal fatigue.

"I got to the point where the stress was still there and I started to make the connection. Things had changed at work and made it worse."

Lisa took six months off, changed her diet and realised how stress had been affecting her body.

"It had never occurred tome before, the connection between the gut and how it all links up."

Lisa'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.

Lisa Berndt quit her job and retrained as a life coach. She says her response to workplace stress negatively impacted her health. PHOTO/BEN FRASER
Lisa Berndt quit her job and retrained as a life coach. She says her response to workplace stress negatively impacted her health. PHOTO/BEN FRASER


Overall, the generator showed 1200 Kiwis surveyed averaged two penalty years. Bay of Plenty respondents averaged three penalty years (see graphic).

STRESS EFFECTS
Murupara Medical Center GP Dr Britta Noske says stress is a contributing factor to many health issues.

"It ranges from high blood pressure, stomach issues, ulcers, anxiety, panic attacks, sleeping, eating disorders, all the way to cancer. It makes asthma worse."

Dr Noske says stress is one area medical professionals can look to when seeking causes for symptoms. "Or we can forget to ask about it."

Most of the doctor's patients are economically disadvantaged.

"Financial stress if you're living on the absolute minimum-benefits or a minimum wage does make life tough. It does reduce your options and causes a significant amount of stress because the cost of living isn't going down."

Dr Noske says some patients manage life's pressures better than others.

"It's how we respond to those triggers that can cause profound stress or just a mild discomfort."

Rotorua resident Sonya Hunt, a senior lecturer in social work at the University of Waikato, says society promotes individualisation of problems like stress, saying, in effect, "It's your problem and your role to fix it." She added: "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."

Lisa ultimately decided not to return to her management job, retraining instead, as a life coach. She says she's on the right track after putting in place habits such as regular exercise, healthy eating, meditation and mindfulness practices.


"It has taken a long time to unpack a lot of the impact," she says, referring to the stress of her former work.

Hope Counselling owner Joy Dorfliger says she works with clients to replace misbeliefs about themselves with truth.

"Sometimes it's a matter of going to the doctor and having an anti-depressant prescription. I think antidepressants work well as a temporary solution while beliefs and strategies are being worked on."

Joy recommends exercise, even if it means parking the car further away than normal, and using bags of rice as weights to lift while watching TV.

I think the best way to dismantle a problem is one bite at a time. A sense of success is really helpful for motivation.
Joy Dorfliger

Life A Plenty counsellor Les Simmonds says stress is a response to a demand or threat, and can be positive when it galvanises productivity. He says 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.
Dr John Medina

He says one person's stressor is another's shrug.

Experts say technology helps and hurts stress levels. Joy Dorfliger says social media offers connection, which we crave, but also presents an unreal reality.

"People compare their lives with others' lives...no one puts their pain or hurt on the site.

Joy Dorfliger
Joy Dorfliger


In talk therapy, we talk about how Facebook works and I ask them what happens in their emotional world while they're checking out Facebook and how that could be limited."

MANAGING STRESS
Experts agree a healthy diet, exercise, adequate sleep, tuning out technology, limiting alcohol consumption and mindfulness meditation are effective in managing stress.

But too often, we turn to quick fixes like alcohol, the internet or watching TV.

Les says, "People think it helps ...but it doesn't help you solve your difficulties and deal with stress in an effective or productive way."

Les recommends taking a stress inventory, which can pinpoint energy drains. He says taking time to value simple things is key. "Just appreciating having a meal with our family, or thinking how wonderful it is to have a partner. Appreciating is also an antidote for stress."

Lisa says she's fortunate to limit work hours during the time her 5-year-old daughter attends school. And lucky to have realised she needed change. "Being in the workplace where everyone was under the same pressure...the biggest step was owning up and saying,

'This is too much. It isn't working for me'." Lisa can walk her daughter to and from school, pick veggies from the garden and even allows herself an occasional nap. "

I've never felt more satisfied in life. I thought I'd miss being around people, being part of a team. But I love it. I get to be instead of do all the time."

Beating stress
-Do:
-Relax with calming activities
-Breathe deeply
- Eat well
- Practice mindfulness meditation
-Talk to someone
-Get a pet
- Write it down.
- Don't:
- Take to cigarettes, caffeine, alcohol or snack foods
-Over-extend yourself
- Blame yourself.

-Excerpted from: healthnavigator.org.nz

WHAT'S YOUR HEALTH AGE?
-Take the survey health.sovereign.co.nz

- Rotorua Daily Post

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