Sunday 19 May 2019

Dealing with stress

Aine Nugent

Damn, there's the doorbell. The pot boils over, the child is crying and your stress levels are so high when you answer the door that you're sorely tempted to close it behind you and run down the garden path away from it all.

We're all used to juggling the stresses of everyday living; those times when mere multi-tasking just doesn't seem effective enough. These days, with money worries and job doubts hanging over us, life just seems to be getting harder and busier. The day isn't long enough and your life seems to be stuffed into an overflowing bag all the time.

But at what point exactly does stress threaten to become a real problem? We can all say we've experienced acutely stressful situations, but most of the time we get over them -- even laugh about them afterwards.

For some people though, stress takes on a whole new meaning. For them, it's about genuine illness. They get aches and pains, panic attacks and sometimes their hair even falls out. They experience overwhelming pressure, even suicidal thoughts and can't seem to find the tunnel, never mind a light at the end of it.

According to the Health and Safety Authority (HSA), 50pc of absenteeism at work is due to stress -- not just the duvet-day type, but debilitating, can't-get-out-of-bed stress. It is the most common ailment after back pain in the EU, yet you could be suffering from it without even knowing.

How is that possible? Doesn't everyone know when they're feeling stressed out? You feel a bit frazzled at first, struggling to cope and unable to handle even the smallest extra load.

But even for those who consider themselves good with stress -- who claim they even work better because of it -- it can creep up on them so suddenly with very real physical symptoms that, very often, it's mistaken for something else.

Author Anna McPartlin was just 14 in 1986 when she was hospitalised with acute stress. Initially misdiagnosed as brucellosis and then leukaemia, symptoms were severe, including stomach cramps, dizziness, nose bleeds, inability to focus and loss of memory.

"When it was at its worst my heart raced, my teeth chattered and my temperature soared to dangerous levels," Anna remembers.

Her unusual upbringing was at the root. "My parents split when I was five and Mum and I moved in with my gran in Dublin. She was pretty feeble, and Mum was diagnosed with MS that year. I became the arms and legs of the house. I used to wake in the middle of the night to turn Mum in her sleep so she wouldn't get sore.

"I've no doubt I was stressed for the majority of my childhood and teenage years.

A move to Kerry was prompted after her mother had a breakdown. Anna was living in a completely new environment, now fostered with her aunt and uncle, and she was one of six kids. Lovely as that life was -- "and it was a fantastic life," she says -- she felt constantly worried about her mother.

"I knew she was devastated and she missed me. I also knew that her breakdown upon admission to the hospital two years earlier had been so significant that, for a few weeks, she didn't even remember who I was.

"I went from being in her life 24/7 and caring for her to seeing her for a week at a time here and there, and I had no real idea how stressed I was until I started to get sick. Even then, I don't really think the medical profession knew that much about the condition.

"Although the really serious physical symptoms subsided, I continued to have memory problems. I was always anxious and, despite my sunny attitude and being an extrovert and the 'funny one', I was dreadfully lonely."

Anna's experiences are shared, to varying degrees, by people all over Ireland, and even more now since the onset of the recession.

Friends First are market leaders in the provision of income protection insurance, and they have seen a 150pc increase in stress-related claims over the past five years.

The condition made up 15pc of their total claims in 2010. Their claims are always supported by medical evidence from a clinical psychologist and sufferers must be unable to work due to stress to have a case.

Dr Abbie Lane runs the Dublin County Stress Clinic and she tells a similar story. "People who have been perfectly well are presenting with very physical symptoms such as tummy problems, dizziness, palpitations, bowel conditions. Once we've ruled out an underlying medical condition, we consider stress as the cause.

"Generally, it progresses to sleeping disorders, persistent worry, loss of interest and hope."

Dr Lane says that stress used to be linked to being overloaded with work, but now it's the loss of a job and earnings and the family and relationship issues that arise as a result.

"Ultimately, suicide is a big issue," Dr Lane explains. "If you feel hopeless and carry around guilt, blame and shame, it's the risk you run with untreated stress."

She says the first trigger is out-of-character behaviour. It could be sudden road rage, or supermarket-queue rage. But the flare-up is usually noticed by someone else, rather than the person themselves. If that change in behaviour lasts a few weeks or more and interferes with normal life, then you can get panic attacks, become withdrawn and stop socialising.

Dr Lane compares stress to an iceberg. "The top third is the suicidal. They need to seek medical help immediately and to be treated with therapy and/or medication. The underlying two-thirds can be helped by lifestyle changes; exercise, diet and routine are all very important."

But there are some encouraging signs, too. Dr Lane senses a change in our culture and says that is now easier to admit that you've lost your job.

Anna McPartlin also thinks that our attitude to stress has changed. She believes the condition is much better understood now.

"When a nephew of mine started showing exactly the same symptoms, I mentioned my own problems at that age to his mother, citing the half-hearted diagnosis given back in 1986. He was diagnosed with chronic stress and it was dealt with swiftly and effectively.

"I did some research after that and I realised that all the symptoms I'd been enduring back then were merely thought of as part and parcel of my personality, or maybe put down to teenage angst, but they were the effects of chronic stress."

When she lost her mum aged 17, grief replaced anxiety but, when the grief subsided, she says the cloud she'd been living under dissipated and she has never experienced any of those symptoms again.

"Now, no matter what goes on, I seem to be immune from the effects of stress because, no matter how dramatic it seems at the time, I never feel as bad, sad or helpless as I did back then."

Anna used her experience of stress in her writing -- her latest book was aptly titled 'So What if I'm Broken'. "I inject light and humour into dark stories. Because I've lived through difficult and very sad times I understand how, when and where to find the light and humour in the situation no matter how outwardly bleak it appears.

"Every ordinary day is a good day. I try not to worry about the little things. Always look at the bigger picture. It keeps major stress at bay," she says.

"Of course, I'll still have a blow out every now and then and beat the crap out of the vacuum cleaner when I can't get the supposedly easy-to-remove lid off it. But that's way different from chronic stress."

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