Stress. We all know how it feels, whether it's triggered by a deadline looming just before that performance review, or perhaps by the diagnosis of a serious illness. Characterised as a state of mental or emotional strain or tension that results from adverse or demanding circumstances, stress can be slight or severe. But it's never fun.
And just because Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern juggled Cabinet meetings with breastfeeding – and other people are getting married at first sight – doesn't mean your stress levels are necessarily any lower than theirs. We all respond differently.
According to NEXT's 2019 Resilience Survey, stress is taking a serious physical and emotional toll.
Our survey of more than 1000 women nationwide reveals that 90 per cent of us believe that stress is a huge issue in today's world. Women report that, when facing big challenges in times of stress or pressure, they experience symptoms including trouble sleeping (72 per cent), fatigue (70 per cent), feeling overly emotional or teary (60 per cent), comfort eating (50 per cent), concentration lapses (48 per cent), arguing with their partner over little things (35 per cent), and having mood swings (34 per cent). Worryingly, 45 per cent of women experience depression and/or anxiety at these times.
That concerns Dr Lucy Hone. As director of the New Zealand Institute of Wellbeing & Resilience, she leads a team of 11 who teach individuals, businesses, organisations and school groups nationwide about wellbeing and resilience. Dr Hone notes that a NZ Health Promotion Agency report released last year found that one in three New Zealanders (aged 15 and over) said they had personally experienced mental illness, either in the past or the present.
"But your rate of 45 per cent makes sense because women's rates of mental distress are higher."
Dr Hone, who is also a research associate at AUT University, says stress isn't itself a problem.
"It's how we think about and deal with stressors that determines their effect on us. Another factor is facing too many stressors simultaneously: having too many plates spinning, too many tabs open. But the term 'stress' is often bandied about and used too broadly. Because it's such a confusing word, we talk about mental distress."
What gets us through stressful challenges or pressures is resilience. Women we surveyed defined resilience in similar ways, such as "being able to withstand changes and obstacles that life throws at you and maintain a positive mental attitude to overcome and cope with them throughout".
Resilience also has another dimension, according to leading expert Dr Karen Reivich from the University of Pennsylvania's Positive Psychology Center (where Dr Hone studied).
"Karen defines resilience as: 'steering through or adapting to some form of adversity, and learning from it'. She added the 'learning' bit, which is important."
Resilience has four levels, Dr Hone says.
"Resilience helps us overcome childhood adversity. Resilience helps us achieve our potential. Resilience helps us get through stressors in functional ways – rather than, say, punching your boss. And resilience helps us navigate life's big upheavals, including death, divorce, redundancy, infertility."
When things go wrong, 60 per cent of women we surveyed stay optimistic (and 24 per cent feel neutral).
"That's great news," Dr Hone says, "as optimistic people do a lot better in multiple outcomes, from better relationships to better physical health. Look, at times it pays to be a pessimist: say, when you're buying a house. But do notice when you're automatically leaping to an overly pessimistic interpretation of events."
Can a pessimistic person change their response to stress?
"Absolutely. It's not a quick process, but a lot of research shows you can effectively rewire automatic negative thinking patterns and build resilience."
Wherever we are on the continuum, stress isn't something that suddenly disappears like an ex-boyfriend. Building resilience will take more than going on a retreat or reading a self-help book. It requires committing to regular actions that work for you (for example, meditation or counselling).
"You wouldn't go to the gym once and think 'that's my physical health sorted'," says Dr Hone. "Mental fitness is the same as physical fitness – you have to attend to it every day."
Yet while 96 per cent of women we surveyed agree it's important to take time for relaxation and recovery, just one in four women always do this, as opposed to sometimes or occasionally.
"Self-care often goes to the bottom of the list," Dr Hone says, "and that's a colossal mistake. Build self-care – whatever that is to you – into the infrastructure of your day."
Otherwise, many of us just won't find the time.
More than half of women we surveyed agree that the pace of life these days makes it hard to cope.
For most of us, our jobs suck up a lot of time. It's good news, then, that three in four women say their work is a good fit with their core beliefs and values, and that it provides a sense of purpose and belonging. It's even more encouraging that nearly nine in 10 women feel resilient to everyday work pressures, while nearly two-thirds feel resilient to major work crises. It's worth noting that 80 per cent of women think employers need to better support staff to handle stress (that might include providing extended leave, or dealing with a workplace bully).
Then there's that other biggie: money. Three-quarters of women feel resilient to everyday money problems, such as maxing out your credit card. Just under half of women who had faced major financial crises felt resilient to them.
Dr Hone's advice includes budgeting, and cutting up your credit card.
"And know that having a man is not the same as having a financial plan!"
It's tricky when partners have different spending styles.
"I'm pretty good with money – my partner, not so much," one woman says. "We recently bought our first house and money has been tight. The biggest hurdle we're facing is him being able to determine what is a 'need' and what is a 'want'."
Many of us have health concerns: big or small, physical or mental, chronic or acute. It's heartening that four in five women feel resilient when faced with everyday health concerns, and 58 per cent feel resilient when it comes to major health crises. Naturally, different people cope with health problems differently.
"For instance, one person might develop depression after breaking a leg and spending too much time alone," Dr Hone notes, "while another might see it as an opportunity to pursue online learning."
One survey participant describes getting bowel cancer aged 35.
"It's okay to cry, to be worried, to be scared etc... Asking questions, talking to people you feel comfortable with, even [seeing] a counsellor can make you feel better even in a life-threatening situation, and all these things contribute to your resilience."
What about wider pressures regarding your family, relationships and home? These can span everyday pressures (your teenager is acting up) to major crises (your relationship is in trouble). Four in five women feel resilient to everyday pressures in this sphere, while two-thirds report resilience to major crises involving their home or family.
Whatever the stressor is, in any area of life, it's vital to communicate openly – and get support.
One respondent puts it this way: "Say yes when help is offered, whether that's from friends or family – or professional help from doctors, mental-health specialists or experts in other areas (financial, gambling or addictions services, etc). As New Zealanders we're too good at trying to go it alone and failing."
Dr Hone agrees.
"Research shows that having strong, supportive relationships is the number one predictor of wellbeing and resilience. A good friend is the person you can phone at 3am."
Many women say the support of friends and family helped them cope with adversity. One experienced four stressful events simultaneously: her father's death, the break-up of her long-term relationship, leaving a job, and moving cities.
"Luckily I had the love and support of my brothers and best friends. I cried, went for walks, talked to people, or spent time alone, whenever I felt I needed to. Be kind to yourself. Deal with things as they arise, and if you feel like watching trashy TV, do it!"
What if you have kids? Just over half of the mothers we surveyed are "absolutely" making a conscious effort to help their children increase their resilience, while a third are doing it to some extent, and 7 per cent haven't really thought about it.
"In the modern world, you definitely need a basic understanding of resilience so you can navigate your children's challenges," says Dr Hone.
"This knowledge helps you understand when to step back and let them try, sometimes fail, and learn from the experience. Children also need to know it's okay to fail."
We also asked women about "internal resilience" – not how you react to everyday stressors, but how you do (or don't) push through challenges to achieve your potential, hopes and dreams. You know, those moments where you realise the PM is younger than you, or you're stuck in a job you don't enjoy, or your friend has paid off her mortgage. Eighty-one percent of women say not being resilient enough has definitely, probably or maybe stopped them achieving their potential.
"A lack of confidence impedes your performance and life satisfaction," explains Dr Hone. "And the confidence to try new things, and face the unknown, is born out of resilience."
So, as per the title of a certain self-help book, feel the fear and do it anyway, whether that's learning a new language or applying for a new position.
Many women wish they'd got more encouragement at critical times, particularly work-wise.
"I believed I wasn't good enough or worthy of achieving certain things," one woman says. "By paying less attention to that, focusing more on what I want and not caring what others think, I'm pushing forwards now."
Dr Hone has imposter syndrome too. "But I label it as imposter syndrome, rather than buying into it."
In all areas, from health to work, women know that the basics (including healthy eating, exercise, and getting enough sleep) are important. However, our survey shows that more women focus on these things sometimes (whether they always succeed or not) rather than all the time.
"Eat well, sleep well, move your body – these reflect long-standing public-health messages, and they do help," says Dr Hone. "But they're not enough in 21st-century life, because we live in our heads, and these can be scary places. We need to learn about ways of thinking and acting that help – or interfere with – good mental health and resilient thinking."
That's why Dr Hone promotes the idea of well-being literacy (like financial literacy).
"Look at the science, then find whatever works for you."
Saying you have a therapist is no longer making a confession. Fifty-one percent of women who have tried therapy say it was "great" at increasing or maintaining their resilience, while 39 per cent said it was okay.
"People getting counselling, and openly acknowledging that, shows we're making progress in de-stigmatising the importance of getting help," says Dr Hone.
For one woman in our survey, therapy helped her overcome a traumatic event and achieve her potential at work. For another woman, therapy got her through postnatal depression.
For another, therapy helped her overcome a work-related breakdown. But not everyone can afford it, with several women saying we need more affordable access. It's important to distinguish between a counsellor, a psychologist, a psychotherapist and a psychiatrist.
The first three all practice talking therapy, which spans various approaches like cognitive behavioural therapy (challenging negative thought patterns in order to alter unhelpful behaviours).
Counsellors help you deal with personal issues, relationship issues, or specific issues like your career. Psychotherapy focuses on helping alter underlying traits that might contribute to your problems.
Psychologists, who have an advanced psychology degree plus two years of practical training, tend to undertake longer-term therapy for deep-rooted issues. Meanwhile, psychiatrists are medical doctors trained in and seen for management of medications (though they'll talk to you, too).
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