It seems as though the word stress has been front and center in our lives, especially lately. It’s no wonder, times are getting harder, not easier and a lot more confusing. And aging as a woman is no feat as well, things just seem to get more chaotic, emotional and down right overwhelming. No wonder there is so much depression and dysregulated mental health going on. It’s scary, but it’s not all doom and gloom.
Yes, we need stress in our lives, it’s the very thing that keeps us on our toes, lighting a fire under you know what! You have a speech coming up, that has to be stressful! You have a deadline about to hit, yep that will create stress! But the difference is that these stressors are temporary. The speech will end (I’m sure you killed it), and the deadline passed (you made it) so with that the stress settles down.
Then there is this thing called chronic stress that most of us deal with every day of our lives. Statistically women have more stress than men. In the 2006 study from American Psychological Association (APA), 51 percent of women, compared to 43 percent of men reported that stress has an impact on their lives.
Where is the stress coming from?
You can be hit by stress any time and most women are usually stressed about finances, family loss, job or job loss, marriage or relationships, single motherhood, family obligations, caring for elderly parents and the list goes on. Women tend to want to do it all and as nurturing creatures we can’t say no. So we work longer hours, take care of the house and run the errands only to be exhausted at the end of the day and do it all again.
How does stress show up?
We carry our stresses physically, whether it’s weight gain, hypertension, heart disease, disordered eating, auto-immune disease, gut issues, neck pains.
It can also show up mentally with negative thinking, lack of focus, poor decision making and forgetfulness
Shows up emotionally in depression, anxiety, irritability, mood swings and boredom.
Stress also shows up in social situations such as loneliness, isolation and less intimacy
Let’s dig into why this happens
First, how chronic stress shows up is that we keep thinking about the future, meaning we think about ALL the things we need to accomplish or how we will handle certain situations due to changes out of our control. When the stress and overwhelm kicks in, the part of our brain called the amygdala (known as the fight, flight, flee part of the brain) hijacks the prefrontal cortex which is the area where you formulate tasks and controls the execution of goals and manages emotions. When we are in that stress state we are essentially in the defensive state, doing what is needed to protect ourselves. All the while our cortisol levels are constantly high. You want high cortisol levels usually in the morning when you wake up, and fluctuating during the day and then low at night so that you are able to sleep well. When our cortisol levels are constantly elevated, we don’t sleep, we make poor decisions (both at work and our eating habits).
And ultimately this wreaks havoc on our digestion. Just think about it, when you eat in a hurry and especially if you are eating processed foods and sugar at your desk while doing 10 other things, the path to your stomach and all the processes that takes to digest is compromised, it’s so tight that there is no easy flow to get from the esophagus to the stomach and other organs for proper digestion. So even if you are indeed eating healthy packed with good nutrients, if you are eating stressed, those nutrients will just pass through and you will not reap the benefits. It’s not just what you eat, it’s how you eat it.
So how do we manage our stress?
Here are 5 simple yet powerful ways:
Two simple yet effective words...JUST BREATHE! Do you ever notice how shallow your breathing gets when you are stressed? Or if you are even breathing at all? We tend to hold our breath when stress kicks in, making the air flow and oxygen to our brain non-existent. So to combat that, we have to first be aware this is happening, being mindful of the situation. Then we have to stop and take 3 full and deep belly breaths. The most effective form of breathing is a four count in through the nose, hold for a count of 5 or 6 and a big sigh breath out through the mouth for a count of 7. The exhale is more important in rest and digest than the inhale. What happens in this state is that you are now in the present moment and flip the switch from being in the sympathetic state (which is the fight/flight/flee state) to the parasympathetic state (which is the rest and digest state). If you can add meditation to the breathing, that would be ideal, but the main thing is to get the breathing correct.
Second way to manage your stress is to go for a walk...move. Walking, especially outside can really help you get grounded and if you can get in nature the better as it is calming. Regular exercise is good as well, just be careful with overdoing it with the cardio or the high intensity as that can do more damage to your adrenals, trust me I know this first hand!
When it comes to nutrition, make sure you are staying away from the processed and chemical laden crap and eating more whole foods (no not the grocery story, but actual whole foods) like eating the rainbow, a colorful plate of vegetables and berries. Nurturing your body with foods that give you energy, fuel your mitochondria (the energy centers) and help your gut function properly.
When it comes to our mental health, this is also very important to managing stress. We need to do more self care (and no that is not selfish), we need to talk to ourselves in a more positive light and understand you cannot control everything, so have fun, laugh and let go!!