Stress:  what every woman (everyone) needs to know

Your health is very likely affected by stress, even if you don't think it is.  Take my story as an example.  When I was diagnosed with melanoma in 2012, a comment I consistently heard from friends and family was:  "how can you  have cancer? You are so healthy!?"  At first, I thought "I know, right?"   But during that cancer journey, I embarked on some alternative therapies, one in which the practitioner used technology to measure my stress (through a measurement of my nervous system).  What she said next really surprised me. 


She said:  "Your stress levels are through the roof.".  (This was later confirmed by a blood test that indicated that my cortisol levels were "not only out of the range, but off the paper".)   


I have to tell you, I didn't believe it.  For those who don't know me well, my background is in corporate finance.  I have run Financial Planning & Analysis functions for high-growth, billion dollar companies and having participated in nearly 100 acquisitions -- all while working for the "who's who" of crazy people I might add.  I thought to myself:  this woman doesn't know stress. Stress is doing a discounted cash flow model at 3am with Wall Street breathing down your back.  In fact, my response to her was "I'm not stressed; I'm just a stay-at-home mom".   [Oh yeah, them's fighting words, I know and have come to agree!]


But here's what everyone needs to know about stress. 


Specifically, I want to tell you what happens in your body when the answer to the question “Am I OK?” or even "Am I calm?" is “No.”  And before you read on, just in case you don't have the time or attention span to read the specifics [a bad sign  ;)  ], let me summarize here to say that:


a) bad things happen in your body if the stressor is more than a short, isolated event (including high blood pressure, fatigue, depression, poor digestion, ulcers, high blood sugar, decreased fertility, chronic inflammation, and poor immune function, just to name a few).


b)  our lives are inundated with non-life-threatening stressors that we can’t seem to get a break from. And so..chronic (ongoing) stress is linked to the top deadliest diseases in America.


c)  stress is cumulative, so in my case, I had been living in stress for many years (and releasing stress through some pretty unhealthy means, but the way).


d)  identifying stressors and taking steps to erradicate them are critical to your long term health.


Here's what happens in the body:


Part of your nervous system operates behind the scenes, quietly steering various internal, physiological processes from hormone regulation to heart rate to digestion. It’s in charge of all the things that are going on in your body that you don’t have direct control over.


The autonomic nervous system, as it’s called, is divided into two parts: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is what kicks in when you are threatened, and is sometimes referred to as the “Fight or Flight Response.” If you ever found yourself being chased by a tiger, you would have to fight the tiger or get the heck out of there. Quickly.


What the brain tells the body to do when it’s being chased by a tiger makes a lot of sense. Here are some of the things that happen:


-Adrenaline and cortisol hormones are released.
-Heart rate and stroke volume increases to quickly move blood through the body.
-Blood vessels restrict to increase blood pressure, also for quicker blood movement.
-Blood sugar and blood lipids increase for more energy to move.
-Shallow, chest breathing increases in order to quickly exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide.
-Circulation to your gut decreases, because digestion is an energy intensive process that you don’t have time for right now.
-Immune function increases for about an hour to help block infection from any wounds you might incur, but then it drops off.
-Reproductive function diminishes because, honestly, it’s not the best time to get busy.

Once you are free from danger, the sympathetic nervous system backs off allowing the parasympathetic nervous system to rebalance your physiological systems.


This makes a lot of sense if you need to defend yourself or run like hell because all these processes enable the body to do some pretty amazing things when it needs to.  Blood flows away from your organs and out to your limbs where you need strength to react. (Our bodies are soooo cool that way!)


The problem is that your brain treats all stress as if you are being chased by a tiger. It doesn’t differentiate between your boss calling you to her office in that particular tone of voice and an axe-wielding maniac.  It doesn't differentiate between being chased by a tiger and running from one thing to the next at a frantic pace, multi-tasking along the way.


So what does one do if they want to lower stress?   Well, there are many, many strategies I discuss with my clients. The best way is to really look at your own life and identify ways to eliminate stress, like forging routines, letting go, the importance of yeses and nos, eating nutritiously (reduce physical stress), exercise (release stress), removing toxic relationships, making priority of creating space and practices you can add that make you feel good (like yoga, meditation, walking in nature, taking time stillness or quiet, etc.), and many more.   Short term, the quickest, easiest  and least costly way to allow the parasympathetic nervous system take over is through the breath, taking long deep breaths and playing with various ways to slow your breath when you need it.  For a few other ideas, check out the blog post beneath this one:


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