South Jersey residents, like others across the nation, are feeling economic stress, and that’s leading to sleepless nights, dental issues and, in extreme cases, heart attacks.

Philip Pecoraro knows this stress. Pecoraro, 35, of Ocean City, has been unemployed since April, when he was laid off from a movie theater. Since then, he has had trouble finding a job with benefits to support himself and his wife.

“This is the worst situation I’ve seen. Even when I was underemployed, at least I had a job,” he said.

Pecoraro trained as a chef at the Atlantic Culinary Institute in Dover, N.H. He would like to work in that field again, but with more people eating at home to save money, fewer restaurants are hiring. In the meantime, he spent the summer applying for retail jobs that went to college and high school students, he said.

“I’m worrying about money from the time I wake up to the time I go to sleep at night,” he said. “It’s stressful. I’m gaining weight. We don’t eat very healthy.”

Pecoraro is not alone. The stress of the economy is affecting people’s health across southern New Jersey, medical professionals say.

Many are unconsciously taking out their frustrations on their teeth, dentist Dr. Bhavin Patel said. He is a dental-restoration specialist at Seaview Dental Arts in Galloway Township.

In 2008, before the recession, Patel treated about one patient per month for stress-related jaw problems, such as temporomandibular joint disorders, which can include headaches, jaw clicking and popping, ear pain and dizziness.

“Now we’re seeing five to 10 cases per week,” he said.

More patients are grinding their teeth in their sleep as well, leading to chips and fractures, he said.

Stress is the likely culprit, he said. Students in dental school often grind their teeth in their sleep because of the harsh rigors of their studies, he said.

The economy is showing signs of recovery nationwide with a lower unemployment rate (7.8 percent) and new-home construction starts on the rise.

New Jersey, however, lags the rest of the country in getting people back to work. The state reported an unemployment rate of 9.8 percent for September.

Even people who were employed during the recession are feeling the stress of the economy, said Julia Hankerson, director of the Woodbine Wellness Center.

“I think a lot of stress-related issues are due to the fact that employees don’t feel they’re considered important anymore,” she said. “In corporations, it’s the bottom line. In government, it’s the politics. Employees don’t feel they’re valued. So that causes them stress.”

Researchers have identified a strong correlation between workplace stress and heart attacks. A study published in September’s issue of The Lancet medical journal found that workers whose jobs require high demands but allow for little personal control face the highest risk of heart attack.

Workplace stress is on the rise in the United States, according to a report this year by the international polling firm Kenexa High Performance Institute.

Workers in the United States last year reported a 7 percent increase in stress compared to the year prior. Nearly one in three workers polled, or 32 percent, reported some work-related stress, up from 25 percent in 2010.

About 35 percent of female workers in the United States had elevated stress levels, compared with 27 percent of their male colleagues. Workers ages 18 to 24 had the least amount of stress, while employees ages 55 to 64 reported the highest stress levels.

Maintaining a good balance between work and home life was one of the strongest drivers of work-related stress for both men and women.

“Anxiety causes physical problems like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, migraine headaches,” Woodbine’s Hankerson said. “Those are just some of the illnesses. There is even the thought that it contributes to some cancers. It really behooves a person if they’re having anxiety or depression to get help as soon as possible.”

Hankerson said financial distress caused by the economy can exacerbate other problems in people’s lives.

“People are financially overwhelmed. It can affect their relationships,” she said. “I do a lot of relationship counseling, and financial issues are one of the biggest causes of marital distress.”

Her clients exhibit symptoms such as depression, sleeplessness, crying spells and even panic attacks, often caused by a sense of hopelessness about their financial situation, she said. Hankerson said that in some cases, anxiety is triggered by some irrational and baseless fear. But this is rarely the case when it comes to worries about the economy.

“It’s not an exaggeration because people are losing their jobs. This is real. From a therapeutic perspective, real or imagined we treat it the same way,” she said.

Likewise, people are getting less sleep, according to a poll by the National Sleep Foundation.

The nonprofit group polled workers during the recession and found that one in three could not sleep well because of economic worries. The Sleep in America poll released in 2009 found a 13 percent increase in the number of people who had trouble sleeping since 2001. Americans also reported getting less sleep overall.

Economic fears might be keeping more New Jersey residents awake at night, according to the Bacharach Institute for Rehabilitation in Galloway Township.

Clinical Director Mary Adekunle said the institute is seeing more patients who complain of insomnia despite no apparent underlying medical conditions. These patients have no trouble getting a full night’s sleep when they visit the center, she said.

“We get patients who complain they’re stressed about their financial situation,” she said. “It keeps them from actually shutting down at night. They’re constantly worried and can’t turn it off.”

Being overly tired can make people less sharp, less productive and more forgetful, she said. These are not helpful symptoms for someone who is trying to impress at a job interview.

The sleep clinic has seen a rise in charity care because jobless patients can’t afford the treatment to address their stress, caused largely by their joblessness.

“People can’t afford to get themselves checked out, because they don’t have the insurance,” she said. “It’s a very tough situation right now. Almost everyone seems to know someone without a job.”

In some cases, the patients’ simple habit of paying bills in bed before going to sleep probably contributed to their restlessness.

“The bills were piling up on the nightstand,” she said. “You should never do your budget or pay your bills in bed. A lot of people bring their laptop to bed with them. But you should do that in a separate part of the house and leave the bedroom as a resting place. It should be a place where you can escape all that.”

Adekunle said that in some cases of insomnia, patients work with a psychologist to address the underlying anxiety or depression preventing them from sleeping well.

Ocean City’s Pecoraro said sleep still comes easy for him at night.

“It’s the one time of the day when I can stop thinking about everything,” he said.

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