Let’s face it: life can be pretty stressful. With adulthood comes a higher education debt, securing a job, buying or renting a house, having a family, and taking care of loved ones. Becoming a fully-formed member of society is rarely a fairy tale…although no one can forbid you from eating ice cream for dinner at least.
Then there’s the other stuff that most of us face at some point in our lives – unemployment, financial stress, sickness or chronic ill health, being overworked and underappreciated, right down to feeling lonely.
Even in a privileged country such as our own, we are not immune to the pressures of everyday life, with 35% of Australians reporting they experience significant levels of stress, according to the 2015 Australian Psychological Society Stress and Wellbeing in Australia survey. A further 26% report they have “above normal” stress levels, and 26% percent describe moderate to extreme symptoms of depression. It is from this APS survey that we shine a light on what’s keeping Australians glum.
Stress affects more Australians physically than mentally
72% of Australians report that stress affects their physical health at least somewhat, while 64% state it has an impact on their mental health.
Why might more people report feeling stress in a physical way rather than mentally? It could be a number of things, so let us take a deeper look to try and figure it out.
Anyone who has felt intense stress for a period of time knows that it soon takes its toll. From the way we interact with others to our own internal dialogue, stress affects how we see the world. The WayAhead Mental Health Association’s stress kit explains: “[Stress] can be described as a feeling or a condition that results when personal or environmental transactions lead an individual to perceive situations/persons or things that they do not have the inner resources to deal with the upsetting or difficult issues in their life”.
Here are just some of the ways, according to betterhealth.vic.gov.au, in which stress can bring us down mentally and physically:
- Feelings of anxiety
- Bouts of depression
- Feeling physically tense
- Feeling angry or frustrated
- Feelings of apathy or despair
- Poor concentration
- Distraction or preoccupation with stressors
- A tendency towards forgetfulness
- Feeling indecisive
- Losing sleep due to tension
- Looking to vices, such as alcohol or other drugs, gambling, overeating or smoking
- Losing patience easily
- Treating others poorly or unfairly
- Putting ourselves last
- Avoiding things that used to make us feel good
- Developing nervous habits, like biting nails or fidgeting
The link between stress and physical health
Looking at all of these potential outcomes of chronic and acute stress may seem unpleasant but not entirely devastating for the most part – but a plethora of studies tell us otherwise. Stress can kill: it is as simple as that.
The American Heart Association and other major cardiovascular groups have made strong links between high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes and other diseases of the cardiovascular system in both chronic and acute stress. So, there are compelling reasons for you to tackle stress head-on!
Why are we stressing out?
Living in Australia certainly has its benefits. We have a good healthcare system, (mostly) free public education, access to great recreational activities, beautiful terrain, and – most importantly – the best BBQ’ing in the world (just one writer’s opinion).
But with a blossoming economy throughout the noughties, a growth in real wages and high public confidence as a result, we had a soaring Consumer Price Index (CPI) that, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, saw the cost of living rise dramatically. A 2013 Deutsche Bank survey showed that Australians pay 159% more than Americans for fast-moving consumable goods, or everyday items; which introduces us to our first major stressor.
To demonstrate how significant this change was in a global sense, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual Worldwide Cost of Living survey ranks Sydney as the third most expensive city in the world, followed by Melbourne in fourth place; ten years ago, no Australian city made the top 10.
How does this dramatic rise in the cost of living affect us personally? The Australian Psychological Society Stress and Wellbeing in Australia survey tells us that financial issues contribute to stress in 45% of cases.
To break it down even further, the survey states that
- 58% of respondents feel stressed about the affordability of food and other basic necessities;
- 45% are stressed about the financial security of the family unit, and the need to provide; and
- a further 39% feel the stress of paying for, or the prospect of paying for, mortgage or rent.
Budgeting is the key to managing your money. Know where your money goes and prioritise accordingly. If you’re in real strife, locate a financial counselor who can make heads and tales of your woes and even advocate for payment plans on your behalf. If your financial woes are affecting your mental health, it’s time to seek external help.
Next in the long line of stressors is health, with 44% of the APS survey respondents identifying ill health as a cause for strain. This is a larger arena that you might imagine, with numerous bouts of acute illness, like coughs and colds, affecting:
- Exercise opportunities
- Opportunities for wellbeing
When it comes to chronic disease and pain, the young are certainly not immune either, but the older we get the more our bodies are likely to cause us grief. These long-term and unresolved health issues can lead to more serious consequences, meaning that stress levels are likely to reach lofty levels without the right support and assistance. This can impact on:
- Establishing relationships
- Maintaining friendships
- Ability to work full-time
- Ability to participate fully in public life
Many of these factors are fundamental to who we are, and impact the goals we’d set for ourselves in healthier times. Clearly, if stress is bad for our health, then stress caused by health problems is only going to create a vicious cycle.
Finding doctors and specialists who you trust is important. More importantly, work on your relationships with ALL of your loved ones. Focus on what your body can do rather than what it cannot, and set aside blocks of time just for you – to do whatever makes you happy.
If you’ve never experienced issues with your family,you’ve hit the family jackpot. 43% of the Psychological Society’s survey – nearly half! – cited family issues as a current source of stress, which is a huge and surprising number of people. Of course, multiple factors come into this:
- Gossip and innuendo
- Tension from past disagreements
- Personality clashes
- Invasions of privacy
- Disapproval of personal decisions
- Disloyalty or betrayal
- Arguments over wills and estates or care of older relatives
- Cultural or philosophical differences
- Issues with young or grown children, like misbehavior or criminality
This list only scratches the surface of what could go wrong between large numbers of family members. They might be more subtle factors, like a general annoyance over personality traits, or it could be something far, far worse. The fact is, we have to make decisions based on these issues, and that is an additional stress. Do we confront or argue? Do we pretend everything is okay? Do we pander to a parent and upset a partner instead? Do we try tough love or soft love? It’s so stressful because it never fixes itself.
First try to be reasonable – is it really you who is in the wrong? Is the matter really that important? If it’s something significant, be honest and open – and consult a healthcare professional if the issue escalates.
Trying to be healthier
How many of us take to the couch when we’ve promised ourselves a gym or yoga session? After a tough day, it might be just the ticket, but if it’s stirring up feelings of guilt and low self-esteem then we have a problem. The habit of promising ourselves a new start but never quite getting there is probably more stressful than the exercise itself. And, according to the APS survey, 39% of us are stressing about becoming healthier.
Diet is a whole other kettle of fish. While some are counting calories and weighing dinners, others are spending outrageous amounts of money on “clean” and “super” foods, until it becomes something of a sport in its own right. There is nothing wrong and everything right about trying to eat ethically, but we must be particularly careful about developing food obsessions (often called “orthorexia”) or the types that we’re all familiar with – anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating. So let’s look at the potential “problem” behaviours that might be causing this stress:
- Setting goals that are never met
- Constantly comparing your body to other people’s
- Hating the feeling of being naked
- Avoiding situations where your body might be seen, such as the beach
- Using food as a way of dealing with other stressors – such as depriving or bingeing
- Focusing on the things you hate about yourself, rather than the things you love
- Cutting out entire food groups that are considered healthy by qualified professionals
- Trying to use food as a cure-all, rather than as an essential source of nutrition
- Depriving yourself of the pleasure of food
Trying to be healthier means different things to different people, and there are so many more unhealthy behaviours we could focus on. If you feel like you’re not in control of your diet or lifestyle, you needn’t internalisze it and intensify the stress. Goal-setting is an important first-step, providing it’s a realistic one, but make it more of a challenge by sharing your results with a friend, or joining a support group.
Tips for managing unhealthy behaviours: First, make sure the things you’re worried about, such as your diet and exercise regimes, actually are unhealthy. You may be meeting or even exceeding recommendations for exercise and nutrition, and all that stress is for nothing. If you are deeply unsatisfied with your state of health, however, there are a few dos and don’ts.
Don’t beat yourself up if you miss a day or a week of goals. Every day is a new opportunity. Do enjoy the exercise you do – your body should feel good (in a worn-out way). Don’t let others tell you how you should or shouldn’t look. Do look forward to having more energy and better nutrition – in fact, that’s a perfect end-goal. Don’t use words like “naughty” or “good”. Your diet is not a moral issue.
The health of a loved one
The ill-health of a parent, partner, sibling or child can be just as stressful – or even more than – the state of our own health. Even the poor health of a close friend can be hugely impactful. Stressing about the health of a loved one affects 37% of us. Because the other person is ultimately at the mercy of their own health, the loved one (you) usually plays the role of support person and carer. Instead of focusing on the stressful thoughts, feelings and behaviours of this scenario, we’ll focus on what you CAN do.
- No matter how sick or how distressed your loved one becomes, be a rock – without sacrificing your own health
- Offer to advocate for them at doctor and specialist appointments
- Be reassuring, but don’t pretend everything is fine.
- Try and maintain composure and patience when dealing with the healthcare system, but…
- Don’t be afraid to make a fuss if your loved one is not being cared for
- Above all – listen. The more you take in, the more of a treasured confidante you will be
Tips for managing poor health of loved ones: You don’t always have to be stoic. It’s okay to share your emotional pain, or even just reminisce about better times. Find ways to be helpful practically as well – does your loved one need help with shopping, paying bills, making phone calls or cooking? Can you locate services, if required, that will assist in activities of daily living? Once the creature comforts are taken care of, indulge in something we can all keep in reserve – laughter. It is, as they say, the best medicine.
Dealing with stress
We all have ways of handling our stressors, whether they are generally helpful or not. The survey tells us that some of the more popular ways of handling stress are listening to music (78%), reading, whether it be a paperback or simply something inspirational (76%), turning to healthy foods like fruit and vegetables to nourish ourselves physically, and drinking plenty of water (75%) – and there is an excellent Conversation article on the benefits here – and 73% adjust their expectations according to a change in situation. Other helpful ways to approach stress may include vigorous exercise, meditation or mindfulness, getting more sleep and throwing yourself into a hobby.
When to seek help
Knowing your risk factors and self-awareness are crucial in managing your stress. If you are typically resilient, you can look at things philosophically and find helpful outlets to manage, then you may be low risk, but this may not always be the case. If you find yourself shutting others out, becoming overly emotional, being quick to anger, taking drugs or drinking excessively to mask your stress, you may have found a limit to your coping skills. If you’re not sure, ask someone close to you for an honest answer.
People who are unemployed or have insecure housing report the lowest levels of wellbeing, which is fully backed up by sound research endorsed by the World Health Organisation. The youngest adults in the survey, aged 18-25, reported the lowest levels of wellbeing, meaning that the most physically healthy of us may in fact be the most stressed. Social media and peer pressure were both noted as potential contributors in the APS survey. This was also shown to be inversely true, with those aged over 65 noting the highest levels. It may be even more important to watch for unhealthy behaviours in our youngest adults.
It’s concerning that the APS survey tells us that 51% of responders report doing nothing different to manage acute or chronic stress, but others turn to friends, family or medical professionals. WayAhead Mental Health Association sums up the significant role that stress has in our lives. “Long term, chronic stress can have a significant impact on our mental health and can be a contributing factor to diagnosis of anxiety, depression or other mental health illness. It is strongly advised to seek help and advice when in need.”