Of the one-in-three Canadians who struggle to manage their finances, a significant number are landing in doctors’ offices, suffering from a host of associated medical concerns.
The direct link between financial health and physical and emotional well-being is well-documented, most recently in a 2014 joint study conducted by Manulife Financial and Ipsos-Reid. It found that individuals with financial difficulties take 25 per cent more sick days than their financially secure counterparts, get almost 24 per cent less exercise, and are twice as likely to experience acute stress over their personal debts.
A fear of the unknown
Such findings certainly don’t surprise Edmonton-based family physician Dr. Dan Berendt. Lately, the Copeman Healthcare doctor has seen more patients than usual complaining of physical conditions related to their financial stress.
“Whenever a person is faced with a new reality like losing their job, or an executive who has to hand out pink slips to 300 people, they suffer internally,” he says.
“At the core is a fear of the unknown, triggering anxiety which manifests itself in physical ways. Over the long term, a stress reaction can cause serious physical harm to your body. A person can compensate and get around a stressor that’s short-term, like getting stuck in a traffic jam. But if it’s lasting months on end, that’s when you can get into trouble.”
Whenever the body perceives a threat – either physical or psychological – the nervous system responds by releasing stress hormones, cortisol and adrenalin. When this emergency stress response is activated over a prolonged period of time, it becomes difficult to shut off, and can cause widespread damage such as heart disease, digestive issues, a suppressed immune system, anxiety and depression.
The trick to managing stress
“The trick to managing stress is to control it before it escalates to chronic levels,” says Copeman psychologist Dr. Karen MacNeill.
And the best way to manage stress is to create a solid foundation based on healthy lifestyle decisions, including good nutrition, and enough sleep and exercise.
“This will give you the energy and perspective you need to manage your environment. Then you want to work on calming strategies – relaxation, listening to music, taking a bath, yoga or meditation,” she says.
“A calming strategy tells your body, ‘we’re okay, I can handle this stress’, and decreases its internal capacity so you’re not always on fight or flight mode.”
Use stress management technology
MacNeill also recommends incorporating technology – some iPhone apps she prefers include Belly Bio, which assists with deep abdominal breathing, and Mind Shift, which helps defuse anxiety through visualization and mindfulness.
At the core of stress management is self-awareness, she says. “Be aware of how you respond to stress, what your main stressors are, and have a monitoring system to measure it – I like the stress scale at www.mindgarden.com.
“Look at it as a green light, yellow light, and red light. The red zone means stress is impacting your health, performance, relationships and functioning. When you have constant chronic issues in these core areas, it’s time to get professional support.”