In stressful times, what do you do? Do you pour another glass of wine or head to bed early? Do you become more focused on your diet and exercise or do you become an emotional eater, clinging sloth-like to the fridge? Come to think of it, do you even know how you respond to stress? If you’re under stress right now, what do you feel like doing?
According to the Black Dog Index, an initiative of The Australian and the Black Dog Institute, powered by Newspoll, we at least claim to do more of the right things than the wrong things.
When given options of how we might have responded to stress, 56 per cent of us say we try to get more sleep, 50 per cent say we exercise more and 44 per cent say we eat more healthily. This is all good. This is what we should be doing to take care of our mental health and prevent such stress leading to illness.
But take a closer look at the survey and you find almost one in three of us admit having used alcohol at some point to deal with stress. And 15 per cent of us have taken up smoking or smoked more — that is higher than the nation’s smoking rate. This, obviously, is not good.
“It looks to me as though people are taking a bet each way, wanting to engage in both healthy and unhealthy behaviours,’’ says Philip Mitchell, a professorial fellow at the Black Dog Institute.
“They are probably thinking: ‘If I do a little bit of healthy responses to stress maybe I can overcome the fact I am drinking and smoking too much.’ But that is still an unhealthy balance.”
Mitchell, who heads the school of psychiatry at the University of NSW, says some people look for a “quick fix, whatever works”, and may turn to alcohol — even though it is a depressant drug — and cigarettes, potentially forming an addiction that compounds the problem.
“If we look at depression, we know that groups of people that acknowledge having depression also have higher rates of alcohol abuse and higher rates of smoking than the general community,” he says.
“Some individuals are almost self-medicating in this way; they feel alcohol can reduce their anxiety or depression. The trouble is, it returns quickly and excessive alcohol in itself can cause people to become more stressed and anxious.”
The Black Dog Index is tracking the mood of the nation and helping us explore various aspects of mental health. The latest results show that, on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being ‘‘completely’’, we are registering about 7.6 on the happiness scale.
The protective nature of relationships and employment is still evident when it comes to feelings of misery and depression, and unfortunately, as with previous surveys, there are still those who are troubled by feeling life is hardly worth living.
This quarter’s unique question, about responses to stress, delivers results that some might find surprising.
Alcohol, it turns out, is no longer the drug of choice for those on low incomes; turning to alcohol in difficult times is now more common among university educated, higher income, full-time workers in society, each of those categories returning a 40 per cent score, far higher than the overall average of 30 per cent.
“It looks as though it’s increasingly a problem for the middle and upper income classes who perhaps have more discretionary income (to be able to afford alcohol) and are now socialising heavy alcohol use,” Mitchell says.
“Really, the better educated group should know better … we’re normalising heavy alcohol use and people … still underestimate the effects of alcohol.”
The National Health and Medical Research Council recommends adults drink no more than two standard drinks a day, and no more than four standard drinks on a single occasion. Keeping to these limits reduces the risk of alcohol-related disease, injury and harm. But Mitchell believes most Australians would regard that as “a very small alcohol intake” and set their own limits.
“I think the public awareness of what comprises healthy drinking is out of kilter with the national guidelines,’’ he says.
Just as the NHMRC guidelines are based on thorough scientific studies, Mitchell says, “there is very good evidence that a healthy lifestyle — exercise, diet, sleep — is an important part of mental health and reducing depression and anxiety.”
Ultimately the most important thing when it comes to stress is to be mindful of your actions and reactions. Get to know yourself better and learn how to help yourself without having to resort to drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes.
Mitchell says there are techniques proven to build emotional resilience, and people should act sooner rather than later. After all, it is easier to prevent a problem than fix it.
“I think the earlier people can learn healthier habits the better it will be for them because it is very hard to undo the adverse effects of alcohol and smoking,’’ Mitchell says.
You can be resilient and regenerative. In the long run, a stronger you is a better you.
Disclosure: The author, who is being treated for major depression, has experimented with candy-covered chocolates, quinoa, low-carb beer, energy drinks, nature documentaries, treadmills, impromptu naps, and various books and albums. He now accepts expert health advice.
This article first appeared on The Australian on 11 April, 2014.