Your muscles are tense, you can’t seem to focus on your work and in the back of your mind you just realized that you signed up to volunteer at church on the same night as your daughter’s big game. Your to-do list is a mile long and there doesn’t seem to be any help in sight. Face it: you are stressed. The longer you are crushed under the waves of stress the more damage that you will do to yourself.
What is Stress?
Defining stress is difficult. One person’s horrible day is another person’s walk in the park. We all have different triggers for stress and different ways that we cope or don’t cope. Generally stress is a physical or mental reaction to either internal or external stimulus. Our bodies are constantly adjusting to outside forces; be it temperature, excessive work or even a real or perceived threat. How well we manage this stress can affect our total well being.
Ironically, there are some types of stress thought to be beneficial to us. The fight or flight notion in which your body has to make a choice to flee or work through it is considered a healthy reaction to stress. This is the sort of reaction that you have when a work deadline looms near. Part of you will want to run away from the assignment, but the fight instinct can encourage you to prioritize and work more efficiently. The stress felt before a competition can give you a rush of adrenaline and make your body exceedingly powerful.
For years scientists and doctors have agreed that stress has a direct link to how well our bodies can fight off an infection. There is some evidence to show that stress helps prepare us for injury or illness, but prolonged exposure to stress will weaken your ability to fight off infection. It can make you fatigued or manifest itself in muscle spasms and headaches. It is also directly related to depression and anxiety.
How Does Stress Show Up?
Let’s face it, at some point or another, each and every one of us has felt stressed. Some of us can work through stress, but if you are like most, you often find yourself throwing your hands up in the air and on the verge of a melt down. Stress has now become as American as apple pie. But who has time to make a pie anymore?
A study done by the American Psychological Association in partnership with the National Women’s Health Resource Center and iVillage.com showed that nearly 47% of all Americans are worried about how much stress they have to deal with. Not only are we stressed, but now we’re stressed out about being stressed! The people in the study that indicated that they lived with a high level of stress also said that they suffered from hypertension, depression, obesity and anxiety.
So many of us gravitate towards things that we think will comfort us: overeating, smoking, watching television. These things may take our mind off of the stressors for a moment, but eventually the same issues will begin to nag at us again. Now we are saddled with whatever was originally stressing us out in addition having to deal with the effects of our unhealthy behavior: poor health, obesity, feeling sluggish.
How fast we age is also directly linked to how we cope with stress. Have you ever looked at the face of a truly happy senior? They may look and act years younger than their actual age. Short-term stress can improve your immune system and memory, but long-term stress can inhibit the speed our cells divide and send us into premature aging. Common ailments linked to prolonged stress include osteoporosis and Alzheimers. Luckily, some of these effects can be reversed or slowed down with either medication or a change in lifestyle.
Another medical side effect of sustained stress is increased lipid level and fasting cholesterol levels. A study was conducted with a sample group of people. Each participant was asked to complete a series of stressful tasks and their initial stress reactions were recorded. Three years later the same group of people was gathered to run cholesterol tests. Those that had the highest levels of stress three years prior, regardless of gender or weight, were the ones that recorded the highest and most dangerous levels of cholesterol.
How Women and Men Deal with Stress:
How women and men deal with stress is very different. There are a number of factors that play into this. Traditionally, women, more than men, take on the role of primary family care giver. This means that all of a family’s health concerns fall on the shoulders of the women, along with the stress that brings. A woman will tend to put everyone else before herself and ultimately sacrifice her own health and well-being. We’ll suffer through a cold at work, but if our child is sick we will drop everything to take care of him.
If you ask men and women to describe their reactions to stress their answers will run the spectrum. Men usually characterize their stress reactions as feelings of rage or sleeplessness. Women usually say that their first reaction to stress is wanting to cry. A majority of women also say that they are prone to overeating when stressed. The overeating then leads to lower energy, fatigue, and eventually more stress.
Most studies on stress have only been on men and how men respond. These studies are where we get the familiar “fight or flight” notions. For decades this was how scientists assumed all humans behaved. Only recently have scientists begun performing stress tests on groups of women and the results are not at all what our male counterparts would have indicated. In most cases, women did not react to stress by wanting to “fight or flight.” Instead, their instincts were to nurture.
This new model for how females cope with stress has been dubbed the “tend and befriend” paradigm by it’s discoverer, Dr. Shelley Taylor, director of the UCLA Social Neuroscience Lab. A woman’s instincts are naturally to protect or tend to themselves and their children. Then women seek out other women that could help them through. Pursuing comfort through a connection is the befriend aspect.
Women are thought to have the same rush of hormones as men when under stress, but the types of hormones differ. Men tend to have an increase of testosterone, which is connected to hostile and aggressive behavior. Women’s increase in hormones is via oxytocin, a hormone that can disperse feelings of fear and can increase the instinct of care giving.
Women’s Issues & Stress:
One of the most complex women’s health issues is between stress and infertility. For years doctors have told patients that if they would just relax their infertility would cease to be a problem. A ten-year old study showed that the stress levels among women suffering from infertility were equal to or higher than women afflicted with cancer and HIV, but no one could determine if the stress or the infertility appeared first.
Women suffering from too much stress are also at greater risk for sore muscles, back pain, higher blood pressure, and heart palpitations. All of those, if the underlying stress is not treated, can lead to much more serious problems down the line such as heart disease. The physical toll caused by premenstrual syndrome or menopause can also heighten a woman’s reaction to stress. Women that indicated that they suffered from stress also complained more about PMS pain.
What can be Done to Relieve Stress?
One of the simplest ways to ease your stress is to talk to a friend. Talking about your stress can help you to relax, work through your problems, and maybe even receive advice on how to fix some of the issues plaguing you.
There are many other simple and easy ways to alleviate some of the stressors in our lives. Here are just a few – if you have more please share them using the form at the bottom of this page.
- Accept it: If you’re stressing yourself out over something that it beyond your control – here’s how to stop: 1. Imagine the absolute worse case scenario. 2. Resolve to accept it if it comes to pass. 3. Do everything you can to keep it from happening. Continuing to worry about it after you’ve done everything you possibly can is does nothing to help.
- Tidy Up: Many people work to keep their home or office as clutter free as possible. The idea is that if your environment is organized your mind may follow. Even clearing your desk before you leave the office will work wonders. Our environments really are a reflection of our minds.
- Think Good Thoughts: It sounds almost cliché, but if you take a moment to mull over some of the good things going on in your life it can snap you out of dwelling on some of the more difficult things you could be going through. Your mind can only focus on one thing at a time, whether that thing is positive or negative is up to you.
- Get a Massage: So many of us forget to take care of ourselves, as we are so busy saving the world for others. Getting a massage relaxes your tense muscles. Studies have found that touch is also healing. So if you can’t afford a massage, reach out to a friend or loved one and ask for a hug.
- Spend Time with a Pet: Take your dog for a long walk or curl up with your cat and a good book. There is research that supports the idea that being around animals can improve your life.
- Laugh: You’ve heard it before; laughter is the best medicine. Call up a funny friend or pop a favorite comedy into your DVD player. Laughing has a way of putting so many things into perspective.
- Go Outside: Take your dog for a walk, spend some time in your garden or grab a friend and strut around the park. Getting fresh air and being around nature is calming. Doing it with a friend is even better!
- Soak in the Tub: Taking a long, leisurely bath can help relax you. Warm water can soothe aching muscles and calming bath oils can help to unburden you. Try burning aromatherapy candles for an added benefit.
- Pray: People all around the world find gratification from praying. Whether it is a simple moment of quiet contemplation, saying the Serenity Prayer or going to a full choir mass, there is great power in prayer.
- Exercise: Join a gym with a friend or meet up with a group from your neighborhood for daily walks. Stretching exercises, such as yoga, can be just as rewarding. Exercising can also help combat some of the side effects of over eating.
- Change your Diet: When you are stressed, you are likely to reach for the junk food. Unfortunately the sugar and caffeine can make you feel worse physically. Try eating fruit or a salad with your favorite dressing, along with a multivitamin. It will give you a boost of energy.
- Take the Shortcut: We are so often overwhelmed by this desire to be perfect in so many aspects of our lives. Sometimes taking a break from that can immediately calm you down. Give yourself a night off from the kitchen and order in. Hire a cleaning service to tackle the big tasks. Share babysitters with friends and take turns paying.
- Private Karaoke: We’ve all seen the guy at the red light: oblivious to the outside world and singing his heart out to the radio. Did you notice that he was also happy? He’s on to something. Next time you find yourself getting stressed in traffic tune your radio to a favorite station and sing along.
- Go out with Friends: When you are having a stressful day it is time to rally for support, send an e-mail to your favorite group of friends and ask them to meet you somewhere for a dinner or ice cream. Talking out your problems with close friends is like being able to fall with a secure safety net.
- Color or Doodle: You don’t have to be a great artist to find release through artwork. Even coloring in a child’s coloring book can be soothing.
- Turn off the television: After a long day so many of us instinctively turn on the television to watch the news. While it is important to be informed, the evening news can stress you out even more. Consider reading an on-line newspaper or listening to NPR. Spend your evenings listening to soothing music, or the unfamiliar sound of silence. If you have children, use the time to play board or card games with each other.
Coping with Stress
Learning how to deal with stress as it arises is the best way to work towards eliminating the most harmful kinds of stress. Talking to a therapist may seem like a huge step, but more and more people are giving it a try. Chances are some of your closest friends have gotten help from a therapist. Ask your primary doctor for a list of doctors that she thinks would mesh well with you. Most major insurance plans will cover psychological treatment.
If you find yourself constantly dealing with a high level of stress, a careful evaluation of your circumstances might help. There are some things in life that will always cause us stress, but sometimes we can find ways to reduce or eliminate stressors in our life. First, make sure you are taking care of yourself physically. Exercise, even if it is just a short walk around the block. Eat healthy foods and take a daily multivitamin. Try to lay off the caffeine and drink lots of water.
We often feel stressed when we are running behind. Maintain a family calendar. Review it each night before you go to bed. Try to prepare for the next day by laying out clothes. Plan ahead your meals. A few simple organizational steps can help you eliminate that frantic feeling in the morning and right after you get off of work.
The best way to deal with stress is to create a support system. If you do not have family and friends in your local area, go online. There are support groups, message boards, and chat rooms for just about any subject.
We will all face stressors in our life, but with a little planning and a little bit of work on the things that bother us; we can keep the effects of stress as minimal as possible.
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