Answers to all Your Stress Questions
By: Lynn Pattimakiel, MD Posted on September 11, 2014
We have all experienced it at varying degrees in our lifetime. But what exactly is stress? It is a very subjective term. I have many women that come into the office for this exact reason, but it’s not something we can measure, or get a blood test to find out how much we have. It manifests itself in other ways-directly affecting the quality of our lives and health.
It can physically manifest itself by interfering with blood pressure, mood, anxiety, concentration, appetite and sleep. It can suppress the immune system, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, contribute to infertility, and speed up the aging process.
In 1936, the scientist Hans Selye, was one of the first to define stress- as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change”. He completed experiments on laboratory animals, exposing them to stressful stimuli such us blaring light, deafening noise, and extremes of temperature. He noted that they all exhibited the same pathologic changes of stomach ulcerations, shrinkage of lymphoid tissue and enlargement of the adrenals. Chronic stress, lead these animals to develop diseases such as heart attack and stroke.
Where is stress coming from?
Stress comes from some external factors that we do not have control over such as:
- financial stress
- stress from work
- family and relationships
- health issues
We can sometimes create stress for ourselves, depending on internal factors, such as our attitude or perception toward the stress. If we are pessimistic, worry all the time, have unrealistic expectations or lack flexibility, this can multiply stress. For example, some people have a fear of public speaking, while others may love being in the spot light.
Is all stress bad? Not necessarily. There are examples of good stress.
For women, we encourage weight bearing exercises because this type of stress on the bone helps to stimulate osteoblasts (bone building cells), which strengthen bone.
In the medical field, we use diagnostic cardiac stress testing to uncover underlying heart disease or blockages in the heart. In this same way, people may perform at their best when put under pressure or a deadline, increasing their productivity.
What happens physiologically to the body under stress?
Due to the surge of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, we see an increase in blood pressure and an increase in blood sugar concentration supplying the muscles. We breathe at a faster rate, increasing our oxygen supply. This all occurs as a protective mechanism in the fight or flight response to stress. This helps us respond quicker, run faster, fight harder. Cortisol promotes an increased appetite and increased fat deposition in the belly!
So when does stress become unhealthy?
Going back to the example of our bones, if we apply too much weight or stress to our bones, instead of a positive effect, we may actually break the bone. There is a limit to how much stress the body can endure. The key is finding out what that limit is, and finding ways to reduce or cope with the stress.
Many times we create stress due to our own perceptions, and the feeling of loss of control of the situation.
What are warning signs when stress begins to affect us negatively?
Stress can contribute to significant cognitive, emotional, physical and behavioral issues. It can cause problems with memory, concentration and judgment. It can lead to low mood, depression or worsen anxiety. It can lead to worsening chronic medical conditions such as chronic pain, irritable bowel syndrome, and decreased immunity. It may also drive us to negative behavioral habits such as excessive alcohol, smoking or drugs to relax.
So what are some simple tools that we can implement to help cope with the existing stress in our lives?
I want you to remember the acronym STRESS
- The first S stands for Sleep. What is the average amount of sleep you are getting every night? The recommended amount is 7-8 hours each night. Without this sleep, your threshold for dealing with stress is reduced tremendously. Get rid of all the distractions from your bedroom. Do not take your cell phone, tablet or laptop to bed. Your bedroom should be your sanctuary where you can turn off and reboot.
Sometimes anxiety from the stress can create a restless night. Try implementing a worry period earlier on in the day where you devote 10-15 minutes to ruminate over the things that are really stressing you out and do this “worry period” earlier in the day.
Eliminate the other reasons you might not be sleeping. Avoid caffeine past 2 p.m., keep the room dark and cool and seek treatment if night sweats are keeping you up. There is help out there! Don’t be afraid to ask
- T stands for Talk it out. Do not keep stress bottled up. There is great benefit from having a supportive network, talk with family, friends, a trusted advisor or counselor. Naming the stress out loud is very cathartic and can also help you in identify and organize your tasks, instead of a bunch of abstract worries floating around in your head.
- R stands for Rest and Relaxation. Every woman, although she wears many hats throughout the day, needs devoted time for herself. So where exactly am I going to find this magical time? Creating a protected time for yourself, even if it’s a small amount of time every day, or a larger amount of time once a week is necessary to refresh. Find something that you love to do, that can really help you unwind. It may be prayer, meditation or your favorite hobby or sport. Invest time in yourself!
- E stands for Exercise/Eat a healthy diet (I’m going to cheat here and use two Es because they are Equally important). Under stress your body releases a flood of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. We should not underestimate the ability of aerobic exercise to release pent up tension and stress. It helps decrease the harmful effects stress can have on the body. It is recommend that you get 10,000 steps/day. Get a pedometer to record how much you are moving.
Your diet will also be incredibly important when dealing with stress. Well-nourished bodies are better prepared to cope with stress. Start your day with a healthy breakfast, reduce your caffeine and sugar intake and cut back on alcohol and nicotine. Strangely enough, we often do the exact opposite and turn to these harmful vices when we are under stress.
- S stands for Sense of control/do not be afraid to Say No. It is common for women to want to juggle and multi task. This often stems from wanting to people please and not disappoint. Remember that you are in control, and you should not feel guilty about identifying your limits. Distinguish the difference between what you must do and what you should do. This will allow you to responsibly devote yourself to the tasks you are already committed to. Learn to let go, and delegate tasks. Do not be afraid to ask for help.
- Now if we were talking about men, we all know what the last S would stand for…And guess what? It is no different for women. Sex is not only an integral part of a relationship, it can also be important to a woman’s well-being. It promotes endorphins, prolactin and other feel good hormones, which can help with quality of sleep and stress reduction.
It is important to recognize the warning signs of stress. If it is seriously affecting the quality of your life, physical health and/or relationships, it is important to talk with a health care professional to discuss what options are available for help.
Be Strong, Be Healthy, Be in Charge!
-Lynn Pattimakiel, MD
Center for Specialized Women’s Health
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