More than half of Kiwi families have experienced depression, anxiety or stress in recent months with one in five of those affected seeking professional help according to new research.
A local psychologist says while the country has now returned to level 1, the local impact of the pandemic at its peak may have long term consequences on our mental health and says more needs to be done to support those affected.
The findings of the new nationwide study into Kiwi’s mental health, commissioned by the makers of Panadol post lockdown found the experiences of recent months have triggered an ongoing increase in stress levels with those impacted turning to a range of mental health services and tools for support.
A quarter (25%) of those families whose mental health has been impacted in recent months have had at least one of their whānau use a professional service or helpline, a sixth (17%) are turning to technology such as an app or online programme, while a seventh (13%) used self-help books. Other sources of support utilised by respondents included the advice of friends and family.
The study’s finding suggests the impact of COVID-19 has been particularly heavily felt by women with 28% saying they have felt more stressed or anxious than any other time of their life, compared to a fifth (21%) of males.
Along with feeling more worried than their male counterparts, women were more likely to have increased the amount of food they ate and alcohol consumed.
Concerns over personal finance was the most likely current source of stress for a third (33%) of Kiwis with health concerns second overall for almost a quarter (24%) of those surveyed. For female respondents, a general feeling of being overwhelmed and not knowing how to switch off was the second most likely cause of stress.
Worries about family members (19%), housing situation (11%) and workload (11%) were also identified by those surveyed as contributing to current stress levels.
Kiwis have experienced a number of life changes since the beginning of the year with more than a quarter (27%) saying their financial situation has worsened.
A month after lockdown ended, respondents in the research also said the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted their lives with more than a quarter (27%) saying their income was worse off, 24% said their physical health was negatively impacted, 22% said their overall wellbeing was worse and 25% said their daily routine was disrupted. A fifth (19%) of respondents had ongoing concerns about job security.
The lockdown appears to have also led to an increase in pain for 59% of Kiwis with four in ten (40%) experiencing more migraines and headaches than they usually do. In addition, nearly a third (30%) of respondents had more back pain, more than a quarter (28%) noticing more muscular aches and pains, and a fifth (22%) showing signs of neck and shoulder pain.
The research found females (63%) experienced more physical pain than males (55%).
Kiwis remain active with eight in ten (80%) exercising at least once a week, almost a fifth (17%) say they exercise more than once a day. They are also social with eight in ten (83%) connecting with friends or family outside of the home (81%) at least once a week.
When it comes to their daily stress management routine, only 8% of New Zealanders practise mindfulness/meditation or yoga (4%) at least once a day.
Dr Nick Penney, mindfulness consultant and pain specialist says stress is often confused with worry, worry being a conscious action and stress occurring from the subconscious need to protect ourselves.
“Stress impacts our behaviour as we try to avoid or alter what we are feeling, the drinkers drink more, smokers smoke more and the chocoholics, well they eat more chocolate! Pain is also very reactive to stress levels as pain is both an unpleasant sensation and emotional experience,” says Dr Penney.
Dr Penney says stress manifests in the body in a number of ways, we breathe more quickly, our heart rate increases, senses sharpen and slow down and the blood supply to the gut decreases, while our immune function decreases and we sweat more.
“Social connection is also very important to us but was stopped altogether during the lockdown. This was doubly difficult as when humans are threatened our natural inclination is to group together not practice physical distancing!”
“We need to learn that good health is not the ‘default setting’, good mental and physical health requires our own will and effort to maintain. There are many stressors on our systems living at the pace we currently do, if we don’t feel able to alter the pace, we need to take time to look after ourselves a little better,” he says.
Dr Penney says practicing mindfulness can help with stress levels and we can become, less reactive, sleep better and be more engaged in life in general
“While 20 minutes a day is ideal, you can start small with just a few minutes a day and build up gradually.”
Psychologist Sara Chatwin agrees Kiwis need to focus and engage on positive things that allow us to rest, rejuvenate and grow or we risk burnout.
“Self-care should not be a taboo topic! We certainly need to invest time and energy into our physical health and psychological well-being. People should consider activities that encourage rejuvenation and growth as opposed to quick fixes and alcohol and substance base highs that leave them feeling empty, depressed and alone post use.”
“Given the urgency of the COVID-19 lockdown and huge amount of uncertainty in and around this event it's no wonder people were and still are feeling stressed. The unknowns continue and financial, vocational, emotional and psychological questions are still being asked by each one of us,” she says.
Chatwin says that women reported feeling more stressed could be the belief that they have many ‘roles’ to fill in their daily lives.
“Women may have been socialised over decades to perform certain tasks and thus may feel a certain amount of guilt when they don’t ‘cut the mustard’.
She says many of us do not put a premium on our self-care and meditation is a form of ‘time out’, giving us a moment for mind and body to connect and the silence and introspection give rise to healing and rejuvenation.
To help Kiwis cope better with the unique pressures of this time Panadol has designed a range of healthy living tips which provide a practical guide for Kiwis wanting to lead a healthy lifestyle.