Women’s lives are stressful.
We play so many roles at the same time: daughter, sister, friend, mother, wife, boss, daily grinder, and side-hustler. Some of us may also be caring for parents or other family members. We all experience stress differently, and we all respond and cope with stress in different ways. It is important to find healthy ways to deal with stress to reduce the negative impact it can have on your mind, heart, spirit and body and support a thriving, happy and peaceful life.
I first began exploring the topic of stress management because of my own experience with stress. At one point in my life, I was a single mother living thousands of miles from family (and two states away from my daughter’s father), pursuing academic tenure, prioritizing a healthy lifestyle, and indulging my passion for travel - all while managing my bipolar disorder. I had the same 24 hours in my day just like everyone else, but it didn’t feel like enough. There were times my stomach was in knots, or I yelled at the driver who cut me off in traffic. Some days I did not want to (or could not) get out of bed in the morning. Not soon after, I found myself in a mental health treatment facility. That experience taught me that I had to learn to manage my stress in healthy ways or I was at risk of losing my career, my family, and the life I loved. I took away so much information about managing my stress that I wrote two books on stress management and became an in-demand expert on the topic.
The Body’s Response to Stress
Before we explore how you can manage the stress in your life, let’s define what it is and how it impacts the mind and body.
Stress is an evolutionary response; it is a state of emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances. And stress doesn’t impact everyone the same way. We may all agree that a job interview is stressful, but a lot of other situations that cause one woman stress may bring inspiration and joy to another.
When we experience whatever stresses us, our bodies respond by releasing hormones that trigger physical and psychological responses. The short version of this somewhat complicated biochemical response is that our adrenal glands release adrenaline, also known as epinephrine, and cortisol, which increases our blood pressure, speeds up our pulse and respiration, spikes our blood sugar and increases blood flow to the muscles and oxygen flow to the brain. This gets our body ready to do what it needs to respond, and these responses are popularly known as flight, fight or freeze.
When the stressor goes away the initial surge of these hormones subsides, and the body can return to a state of calm. However, in a state of chronic stress, there is no return to calm and the buildup of these biochemicals become toxic; for example, blood sugar and blood pressure stay elevated. Some of the physical ways stress surfaces include headaches, digestive problems, insomnia, fertility issues, dysregulated menses, skin issues, hypertension, obesity, diabetes, and a weakened immune system. Some of the psychological and emotional impacts of stress can be anxiety, depression, irritability, and anger. Stress can also impact your behaviors, which may include less or more eating, smoking, drinking, drug use, or social withdrawal. And if you have chronic illnesses, symptoms may be triggered and exacerbated.
The Keys to Managing Stress
To build a toolbox of stress management strategies that work for you, it is important to first become aware of what triggers your stress response, and how being stressed makes you personally feel. When you are stressed:
- Do you feel overwhelmed with emotion?
- Do you have to run to the bathroom?
- Do you have a hard time sleeping?
- Do you lose your appetite?
- Do you binge on bag of chips and pints of ice cream?
Whatever it is, you should journal your stress responses so that you can more easily manage them. Below are five broad strategies for managing your stress that you can tailor in ways that suit your life.
The one stress management technique that is good for all bodies and minds is to manage your breath. Our breath is what keeps us alive, and the speed and depth of our breath can regulate our pulse and determine how much oxygen gets to our brain and organs. Focusing on our breath can also center and ground us. A long, slow, deep breath takes less than a minute and can do wonders to regulate our physical and psychological response.
The four-square breathing technique is a simple, and easy-to-remember way of getting calmed and centered. Use this technique described below, anytime, anywhere, and for as long as circumstances allow or demand.
Step 1: Breathe in through your nose for a count of four.
Step 2: Hold that breath for a count of four.
Step 3: Breath out through your mouth for a count of four.
Step 4: Hold your breath for a count of four.
Take a break
Stepping away from a stressful moment is an excellent way to recalibrate. Some of the easy and simple ways to do this include:
- Close your laptop or turn off your phone (Yes! You CAN turn off your phone)
- Step away from your desk to take a quick break
- Eat lunch away from your desk
- Drink a glass of water or a cup of tea
- Listen to music
- Call a friend
- Send a note of love/thanks to someone
- Say an affirmation
- And so much more
To get rid of the physical tension or energy that accompanies stress, it can be extremely helpful to move our bodies. Going for a walk can take you out of the stressful environment and burn off some of the tension in your body. If you can’t go for a walk, you could march in place or do some body twists.
If you get muscle tension, pay attention to where you feel the stress in your body, and relax those spots. You can do shoulder or neck rolls, touch your toes or side bends if your back is tense, or massage your temples if you get headaches.
Exercise is an excellent way to manage your stress in the moment, as well as build resilience to help your body and mind manage stress in the future, and is a foundation of a healthy lifestyle.
Outdoor activity is the ultimate de-stressor. Fresh air and sunshine lowers blood pressure and pulse, and increases our levels of serotonin - a brain chemical that boosts mood, increases focus, and calms us. Sun on the face also regulates melatonin which is the hormone that makes us feel sleepy at night. Studies have shown that as little as 10 minutes outdoors can make you feel happier and lessen the effects of stress both physically and mentally. And if you can do any of the stress management strategies described above under open skies, you will magnify the impact.
Remove the stressor
This article started out with an ‘acceptance’ of stress as part of modern life, but it is important to also remember that sometimes we CAN we remove some of the stress in our lives.
When my daughter was young, one of the most stressful times of my day was driving from work to pick her up from after-school care. I was at the whim of cross-town Seattle traffic, and I was often late. So, I opted to take several of her friends to school each morning and had their mothers pick up my daughter in the evening. It was a life-changer. My sister reduced the stress of making meals after work everyday for her family of five by meal-prepping and cooking for the week on Sundays.
You may not always be able to manage the stressors in your life, but you can control your physical, psychological, emotional or behavioral response to stress. Understanding the whats and whys of your stress response will direct and inspire the stress management techniques that work for you. It may take some work and some time, but building your stress management toolkit will improve your health and wellbeing and lay the foundation for a calm, peaceful and happy life.