Stress is a part of life, it’s inevitable that in the course of our day to day lives, we will encounter stress. Some stress is good, life would be pretty boring if there was no stress at all and we all just sailed along with nothing to drive us! Stress, or pressure, can help to motivate us, such as having a deadline to complete an assignment. Without the deadline, the assignment might never get finished!
Some stress is not so good, such as illness in the family or legal disputes. However, as long as the issue gets resolved in a reasonable time frame, these short-term stressor’s can be manageable, and we can navigate them without the stress leading to illness.
The difficulty arises when stress piles on top of stress, on top of stress, for example, stressful situations at home as well as issues with your boss at work. Or if there are ongoing, low-medium levels of stress over a long period, such as work-related stress or neighbour disputes, on top of all the usual day to day stuff, finances, kids, managing the house and working full time!
Chronic stress can even begin to negatively impact on our hormone balance. Stress causes us to secrete the stress hormone cortisol, almost every cell in the body has cortisol receptors, so an increase in cortisol can have many responses. Weight gain, poor sugar balance and subsequent cravings, high blood pressure, anxiety, depression and a lack of sex drive. High cortisol can also cause irregular cycles or stop your periods altogether.
There is also no denying that the world is getting busier and time is flying faster and faster. How many times have you heard someone say this year “this year is flying!” we are all feeling it and our fast-paced lives can contribute to stress over time.
Why are we feeling stressed?
Women often talk about feeling that they are lagging behind, that they haven’t accomplished what they expected by their 30’s or 40’s, buying the house, getting married, starting a family. These self and society inflicted “life rules” can also add to the never-ending burden of stress.
Other women are so busy taking care of the kids, the house, their partner, other relatives and in many cases also working full time. They feel that they have literally no time to themselves, or if they do, they spend the whole time feeling guilty! Another way to fire up the stress hormones and the cycle continues and escalates.
What happens when we are under all this stress?
If we can’t cope with it, or become unwell, does that mean we are weak or not good enough? Absolutely not! As I’ve pointed out above, our lives are busier, fuller and faster-paced than at any other time in history. We have so many options, we put so many expectations on ourselves that it’s no wonder so many of us are literally buckling under the pressure.
This constant stress causes our body to be in constant “attack” mode. You may have heard of the “fight or flight” response. This is our bodies intricate system for helping us to deal with short bursts of stress or danger. Think hunter coming across a sabre tooth tiger and needing to get away fast! Cue sympathetic nervous system, driven by the hormones cortisol and adrenaline. This response speeds up the body system, your breathing rate increases to get enough oxygen on board and your heart rate increases to ensure enough nutrients are circulating to the organs. Blood is pumped to the organs of survival, the heart, the lungs and the brain, the digestive system slows down or stops working. This can cause symptoms of a panic attack, we feel shaky, our legs go weak and we feel sick or vomit due to this digestive upset.
Unfortunately, while this system is awesome in an emergency, the body isn’t able to determine actual life-threatening emergency and the build-up of unpleasant but not immediately threatening stress. Meaning that over time, if we remain under stress this system can go into overdrive. This causes immense pressure on our heart and other organs, we can begin to struggle to think clearly and feel drained because our body is in constant attack mode. Our sleep may also be disturbed due to anxiety and worries during the night, or from being wired on caffeine in an attempt to keep going. We will often crave sugar during times of stress, an overload of sugar causes spikes of insulin which also causes havoc to our hormones. We can increase in weight and feel irritable, a never-ending cycle!
We begin to look tired, our skin isn’t as radiant due to lack of blood circulation and disrupted sleep, our shoulders tense, we get headaches, it just isn’t fun.
I feel tired just typing about it all! Chronic, long term stress, really is debilitating and it’s no wonder that stress is a silent killer, over time it can contribute to cardiac problems and chronic illness, as well as having an effect on our overall health, mental health and wellbeing.
Ways to cope with daily stress
There are lots that can be done to counteract the effects of stress and it starts with having a regular (daily) practise of relaxation. This isn’t as time-consuming as it sounds, even between 5-10 minutes of deep breathing or listening to soothing music will help to lower your heart rate, improve your sleep and support you in managing stress.
A short walk to get fresh air is an amazing way of helping yourself to relax and de-stress. Of course, an hour-long walk or more would be amazing, but start small, ensure it’s achievable, even 10 minutes will help. Gardening or being outdoors, in general, has been shown to reduce anxiety and improve wellbeing.
The key is to find something soothing that you enjoy and commit to a daily practice. Up to 10 minutes initially if that’s really all you can fit in. Aim to gradually increase this over time. Your reward is feeling better, less stress, less tired and more in control. Sadly, we could probably work, do housework or other chores for 24 hours a day and the list would never end, it’s time to say enough and put your wellbeing at the top of the priority list.
Over time, regular relaxation can help to improve our sleep, reduce blood pressure and heart rate, support us in eating a healthier diet and exercising (let’s face it when we are stressed these are often the first things to slip!) Relaxation can also help to lower levels of alcohol consumption and cigarette smoking which often increase during times of stress in an attempt to relax.
My advice, as someone who’s also experienced chronic stress, life is busy, fast-paced and stressful, by taking regular time out to relax and get out into nature. It can make such a difference to our health, happiness and wellbeing. You deserve it, you are amazing and are totally worth taking care of. Fill yourself up first and you will find it so much easier to care for others, after all, you cannot keep pouring from an empty cup, even though so many women, including myself in the past try.