MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Why Women Are So Stressed
On the surface, the questions "Why are women so stressed?" or "What causes stress in women?" may seem easy to answer. "My kids and their demands stress me out." "I have too much to do and not enough time to do it!" "I don't know, but I just seem to be crazy busy!" "I can't find the time to relax!" "My life is unmanageable." These are some of the common responses to these questions, but do these comments really answer the questions?
Yet often women need to go beneath the surface and dig out the real stressors in their lives. This is a critical first step, because you can't work to eliminate or manage the stress-producing or stress-triggering events or circumstances in your life if you don't know what they are. To accurately identify the stressors in your life, you need to be completely honest with yourself and your feelings … and this self-examination may not be comfortable at first. But is living with chronic stress comfortable? No! As you probably already know, the first step is the hardest, but I know you can do it!
This chapter has two goals: help you and other women identify why you feel so stressed, and introduce a way to eliminate stress using the DROP approach. (There's a detailed discussion of DROP later in this chapter.) So get ready to understand the anatomy and natural process of stress, to identify the stressors in your life, and how you can start to eliminate and/or manage them in effective, healthful, and enjoyable ways.
WHAT IS STRESS?
We all know what stress is, right? Not having enough time to do everything you need to accomplish, bills you can't afford to pay, sitting in traffic jams, going through a divorce, losing a loved one, having your car break down, losing your job. True, all of these can be stressful situations, but everyone responds to circumstances such as these in a different way or, more precisely, to varying degrees.
Tara, for example, a forty-five-year-old claims adjuster, unexpectedly lost her job during a recent restructuring of her company. Stressful? It could have been, but Tara, who had been thinking seriously about moving from Ohio and applying for several positions in North Carolina near her sister and family said it was the "kick in the butt" she needed. "A week before I lost my job, my sister sent me an e-mail and asked me what it was going to take to get me to make up my mind, that she had several job opportunities for me. Well, losing my job was what it took!"
While I have listed a few examples of stressful situations, they don't answer the question "What is stress?" Stress is a person's response to interactions with external pressures, demands, or stimuli that a person perceives as exceeding her adaptive abilities and that somehow threaten her well-being. Stress is both an external response that scientists can measure (e.g., skin reactions such as sweating or flushing, changes in hormone levels) and an internal reaction that is interpreted emotionally and mentally.
Stress often has a partner in crime called anxiety, and although they may have different definitions, the body responds to them in similar ways. While stress is how the body reacts to a real situation, anxiety refers to fear or a general apprehension that something might happen (as in "what if the plane I'm traveling in next week crashes," or becoming anxious over whether it will rain next week when the entire family is coming over for a barbecue).
Stress is a natural part of life, and it has a good gal/bad gal persona. Although stress can be a positive, effective motivator and a creative force, as when you buy a new house and face the challenge of renovating it or you get a promotion that means more money, there is also the dark side of stress. That's the side that includes chronic, persistent stress that can steal away your physical, emotional, and mental health and gnaw away at your spiritual fortitude. The impact of chronic stress on your body, mind, and spirit are discussed in detail in chapter 2.
The secret of living with stress in your life is to roll with, enjoy, and cope with mild and moderate stress and learn how to ward off and/or most effectively eliminate or manage chronic stress. That's what this book can help you do.
THE ANATOMY OF STRESS: TELOMERES
An exciting discovery in the realm of stress and aging is the presence and function of telomeres, which are often referred to as caps or lids located on the ends of chromosomes. Telomeres have several functions, but the primary one is to protect the ends of the chromosomes from damage as cells reproduce. As part of the natural aging process, telomeres gradually become shorter and shorter until the cells can no longer divide and they die. Rather than die, some cells linger on and cause damage to other cells.
Stress, depression, and trauma can speed up the shortening of telomeres, and thus also accelerate the aging process. Other factors that can wear down your telomeres include obesity, lack of physical exercise, and lack of certain nutrients, especially antioxidants.
The encouraging news about telomeres and stress comes from Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn who, along with two colleagues, received the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of how telomeres protect chromosomes. The year before she received that honor, Blackburn, together with Dr. Dean Ornish, a pioneer in nutritional medicine, president and founder of the nonprofit Preventive Medicine Research Institute in California, and clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, reported in The Lancet Oncology that "lifestyle changes can significantly increase telomerase [an enzyme that increases telomere length] activity and consequently telomere maintenance capacity in human immune-system cells."
The implications of the research and findings concerning telomeres and stress are life-changing. Basically, stressful situations and events trigger a response, but it is up to you how you respond and manage the stress that may accompany that response. You have the choice to modify how you respond by utilizing stress management tools—many examples of which are presented in Part 2 of this book—to significantly reduce or eliminate the effects of stress in your life. When you use those tools, you take control of your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health and well-being.
According to Dr. Blackburn, "Telomeres are the only part of the genome [the complete set of genetic material of an organism] itself that can be changed by lifestyle choices, and hence telomere length measurements can provide valuable feedback on one's disease risks." The choice is up to you.
Telomeres are such an important part of stress and how it affects the body, I refer to them throughout the book, and in fact return to them again in chapter 2, so stay tuned!
HORMONES AND STRESS
Your boss is on the rampage. Your kids are fighting over who gets to use the computer—again. You're stuck in traffic and you're late for an appointment. Any of these situations may cause your muscles to tighten, your stomach to churn, or make you feel like you want to shout a few choice words. But what's happening on a hormonal level? Plenty.
In fact, one of the reasons why women and men don't react to stressful situations in the same way has to do with hormones, and there are three of them we need to discuss: cortisol, epinephrine, and oxytocin.
Let's say you're in a traffic jam and you're already late for a presentation you are supposed to give for your company. You're on your cell phone (hands-free, of course, because you don't need the added stress of getting caught talking on the phone while driving) explaining to your secretary that you're running late because of traffic. People around you are honking their horns. (Where do they think you can go?) You want to block them out but you're not having too much success.
Internally, your hormones are reacting to the traffic and honking as well. Both cortisol and epinephrine step up and cause your blood glucose (sugar) and blood pressure to rise. Cortisol provides an extra feature: it suppresses your immune system, making it less effective at fighting the bad guys.
Up to this point, hormones in both men and women would activate in the same ways in response to a traffic jam or other stressful situation. But then things change. The third hormone, oxytocin, enters the picture after cortisol and epinephrine have made their way into the bloodstream, and in women oxytocin, which is released from the brain, puts some braking moves on both cortisol and epinephrine production. Oxytocin is a "love" hormone, which means it promotes feelings of calm, nurturing, and relaxation.
Men, however, secrete much smaller amounts of oxytocin, hence they have a tendency to react to stress by either suppressing the stress reaction deep inside themselves or fighting back—the old "fight-or-flight response." Also known as the acute stress response, the fight-or-flight response refers to a physical reaction individuals have when something physically or mentally terrifying or stressful occurs. This response was first described in the 1920s by physiologist Walter Cannon, who noted that people experience a series of rapidly occurring chemical reactions when they are faced with a threat.
"Tend and Befriend"
In a groundbreaking study on stress in women and men published in 2000, an entirely new light was cast on the subject. The researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles, (UCLA) explained that while the traditional fight-or-flight view of stress may represent the main physical responses males and females have to stressful situations, they proposed that females are more apt to respond with a pattern they called "tend-and-befriend."
That is, women generally react to stress by engaging in nurturing (tending) activities such as caregiving to protect themselves and others, as well as reaching out (befriending) to friends and others to help them deal with the stress. According to the researchers, the biology that lies at the core of the tend-and-befriend pattern suggests oxytocin plus the female sex hormones are involved in the stress response. Since men release much less oxytocin, they tend to respond more frequently with a fight-or-flight reaction.
WHAT'S SPECIAL ABOUT WOMEN'S STRESS?
If you read the previous section on men, women, stress, and hormones, you already know that one thing special about women's stress involves hormones. But it goes deeper than that. The presence and activity of those hormones directly impact how women respond to stressful situations. Psychologist Carl E. Pickhardt, PhD, who has authored dozens of books on various aspects of parenting (and parenting is one of the main sources of chronic stress for women), has pointed out that the greatest stressor for women is usually associated with a relationship: that is, there is trouble with, or the loss or failure of, a relationship, whether it be with a parent, friend, child, or partner.
Women tend to work hard at "keeping it together," maintaining the solidarity and harmony in relationships. They also tend to be self-sacrificing and to act as caregivers—paying attention to and nurturing children, parents, partners, and friends, often at the risk of not tending to their own needs. All of these efforts can take a significant toll on a woman's physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health unless she takes steps to curtail or stop it.
For men, the greatest stressor is usually performance failure, especially concerning a job or career, sexual prowess, and failure in sports or any type of competition. That's not to say women don't experience stress related to their careers or that they are not competitive, but simply the core energy feeding a woman's stress tends to be different from a man's.
BAD NEWS AND STRESS
One doesn't have to look far to find bad news: whether you get your news from the Internet, the TV, radio, print media, or your family and friends, disturbing, often horrifying news is everywhere. And where there's bad news, women tend to react to it differently than men. That was the finding of a 2012 study by Sonia Lupien and her team from the University of Montreal, although your own experiences probably already have led you to the same conclusion.
Lupien exposed groups of men and women to two types of news: neutral and negative. After everyone had read a series of headlines in their assigned categories, they underwent standard psychological stress tests. Women who had been exposed to negative headlines had higher levels of cortisol after the test when compared with men and with women who had read the neutral headlines. In addition, the day after the study the women who read negative headlines had a greater chance of remembering and reliving the emotions they felt than the men did. This is another example of how women hold on to and internalize their stress while men tend to let it go.
IDENTIFYING THE REAL CAUSES OF STRESS
Now that we've dissected stress, let's see if you can identify the real causes of the stress in your life. We're probably all familiar with the pat answers to what causes stress in a woman's life: children, husband/partner, job, parents, money problems, getting older, never having enough time.
Although these are all legitimate answers, they don't go deep enough. If you can pinpoint exactly what it is about your job that is stressful, for example, then you can take the appropriate action. Until you do, any efforts you make at reducing, eliminating, or managing your stress may actually result in your experiencing more tension and anxiety as you realize you are not accomplishing your goal.
That means it's time to do some soul-searching, and when you do, you may discover that it's not really your job, per se, that is the stressor, but something else. For example, you might ask yourself the following questions:
Is there something specific about the work you do that is stressful? That is, is there a particular task or aspect of your job that causes you great anxiety? Is there more than one task that causes you to feel stressed? Is it possible that you are just not suited for the work you do, and that you need to find another job?
Do you have a stressful relationship with one or more of your co-workers? What specifically about that person (or persons) causes you stress, anxiety, or to feel uncomfortable?
Is your relationship with your boss causing your stress? What specifically about your relationship or your boss is at the root of your tension or discomfort?
Is your commute to work so stressful it has a negative impact on the rest of your day?
Are you stressed at work because of the environment (e.g., lighting, odors, feeling confined)?
You can easily modify these questions to apply to other stressful situations in your life. For example: "Is your relationship with______causing your stress?" or "Are you stressed (at the gym, volunteering at the church, at home, or other) because of the environment?" And so on.
Roseanne is a marketing account manager who said she found her job to be very stressful. "The worst part of my day is the morning, and especially the days I have meetings before noon, which happens several times a week. I'm typically prepared for these meetings, yet I still feel really tense and unsettled, and I'm not really sure why."
When Roseanne took some time to more closely examine her dilemma, she discovered that it wasn't the meetings or her job that was stressing her out, but the commute to work. She had a fifty- to sixty-minute drive on packed freeways and city streets every morning, and by the time she arrived, her nerves were on edge. When she thought more clearly about her drive to work, she admitted that it left her feeling tense for hours, and that she didn't quite feel herself until about noon. Another factor she had not thought about was that she really enjoyed having a cup of green tea in the morning because she said it relaxed her. However, because she was afraid she would need a bathroom break while going to work, she skipped morning tea during the week.
Once Roseanne identified the root of her stress, she was able to take steps that effectively addressed it. Since she was not able to find an alternative to driving to work (but she did manage to arrange to work at home several days a month!), Roseanne came up with a solution: she practices guided meditation for ten minutes before leaving for work, plays soothing music in her car's CD player, and then spends ten minutes in quiet meditation after she arrives at her office. And she treats herself to that much-needed cup of green tea.
"I even put a sign on my door, MEDITATING—DO NOT KNOCK OR DISTURB, and it works," said Roseanne. "A few other people in the office have started doing the same thing. I never realized I was a trendsetter! But the biggest benefit is that I feel so much better, less stressed. The combination of guided meditation and the soothing music has made a big difference, plus the mere fact that I discovered the reason for my anxiety and took positive action to correct it." For those without a private office, a quiet corner in a lunch area or outside may serve the same purpose.
If you can identify the real roots of your stress, then you can take effective steps to eliminate or reduce it (using the DROP approach, discussed below) and/or manage it, which is explored in step 2 of this book. If, however, you are stressed out and can't clearly identify the reason, then your chances of relieving your stress are not great. As one woman put it, "If you blow up at your partner because he put an empty carton of orange juice back in the refrigerator, is the real reason you're stressed and angry because of the empty carton? More than likely his action is just the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. It's time to find the core reason for your feelings."
Identifying the roots of your stress also can help you see the situation in a new light, with different eyes if you will, so you can then take the most appropriate action. That's what happened for Roseanne, and it can happen for you, too. And one way to take action is to try the DROP approach.
Okay, it's time to be honest with yourself. Are you among the group of people who secretly view stress and being "crazy busy" as a badge of honor? A blog article in the New York Times by Tim Kreider entitled "The ‘Busy' Trap" explained that "if you live in America in the 21st century you've probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It's become the default response when you ask anyone how they're doing: ‘Busy!' ‘So busy.' ‘Crazy busy.' It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: ‘That's a good problem to have,' or ‘Better than the opposite.'"
Did you just see yourself in that paragraph? Do you feel guilty if you aren't going somewhere or doing something productive all the time? Are you among those who are busy all the time, as Kreider noted, "because they're addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence"? If you have answered yes to any of these questions, congratulations for being honest.
Here's another question for you: If you have children, are you doing the same thing with them, scheduling their time or making sure they have their calendar so full of activities and events they don't have time to be kids, to relax, to use their imagination?
Now, it's up to you. Do you sincerely want to change and reconnect—or possibly connect for the first time—with yourself, your family and friends, and your world? You have the power to take back control of your life and to banish and manage the stress in your life. Is it really healthy physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually to be so busy all the time? Or is it just crazy?
ELIMINATING STRESSORS: THE DROP APPROACH
It's one thing to identify the stressors in your life, and you can congratulate yourself for recognizing them. You should also give yourself a pat on the back as you move ahead in this book and learn more about how to manage stress in effective, healthful ways. However, it's easier and healthier to prevent disease (and similarly, chronic stress and all its health consequences) than to treat it. That's why it's critical to learn how to eliminate stress.
At the same time, let's remember that stress is a part of life. New stressors will keep coming into your life and you will need to face them. However, if you are forearmed with the right tools then you will be better equipped to take stressors in stride, or at least with a minimum of collateral damage!
The DROP Approach
Do you believe you deserve a rich, fulfilling life? Do you think stressors in your life are preventing you from realizing that goal? Do you believe you can take charge of your life and eliminate some of its stressors?
If you answer yes to these questions, then you are ready to celebrate your life as a woman, wife/partner, mother/daughter, friend/companion, worker/volunteer, and citizen of the world. You deserve a life that is rich and full, as unencumbered with unnecessary stress as possible. This is not a selfish desire; in fact, eliminating stressors from your life allows you not only to be a more fulfilled person, but to have opportunities to share your richness and joys with others.
The Four Elements of DROP
DROP is an acronym for four different ways to help eliminate stressors. Let's look at each one of these approaches separately.
If you're a person who likes to have control over every situation in your life, delegating responsibility to others may be a challenge, but bear with me for a few moments and you will hopefully realize the importance and power of this element of DROP. The ability to delegate tasks to others is an important tool to use because it can allow you to get off the "I gotta" train and let you be the station manager instead of the conductor, coal shoveler, and ticket collector all in one.
Think about a stressful situation or circumstance in your life. Is there someone else who can relieve some of that burden by performing one or more tasks that are now a source of anxiety or stress for you? Can you delegate responsibility to another person at work, school, home, church, or social committee? Or are you caught up in the "I gotta do this" and "I gotta do that" way of thinking, when in reality what you "gotta do" is be willing and able to delegate some of the responsibility elsewhere.
Here are a few suggestions:
• When delegating responsibilities to others, be sure to explain what needs to be done and provide instructions (especially for children or uninitiated spouses/partners) in a gentle and precise way. After all, the goal is to reduce your stress level, not raise it, so it's in your best interests to help ensure the tasks are done correctly.
• Pick one or two tasks around the house that cause you stress and which could be done by another family member and delegate that job to them. It may be walking the dog, cleaning out the litter box, loading the dishwasher, removing the laundry from the dryer and folding it, or vacuuming the living room. You might then take advantage of a few extra moments to relax with guided imagery, yoga, or meditation (see chapters 4 and 5).
• If you are part of a committee at work, church, or in a social group, be sure you know what your responsibilities are and don't volunteer to do more when you know you don't have the time. It's okay to say no when a request or someone else's expectations of you will cause you additional anxiety or stress.
Less is more in many cases, and if you can reduce some elements of a stressful situation, you can get more out of life or make your day more pleasant. For example, one woman told me she avoided calling her daughter during the week because she had a way of upsetting her mother with her complaints. "I've learned from experience that talking to my daughter during the week, especially early in the morning, causes me so much stress at work, it affects my ability to do my job. I wait for the weekends when I can decompress."
Do you have similar situations in your life where you can reduce the impact a stressor has on your health? It can be a simple step, such as avoiding particular stores when you know they are crowded if crowds make you tense. A significant tool in the Reduce category is the word "no." In fact, utilizing the word "no" may be the best way for you to reduce stress in your life. Does playing tennis with your neighbor make you extremely tense? Then it's time to say no, and perhaps find something relaxing you can do together. You can begin to reduce stress by implementing effective management and coping skills, such as those discussed in steps 1 through 7.
One area of significant stress can be so-called time-saving or labor-saving devices. Consider whether they are really providing you a service or their presence in your life should be reduced. For example, cell phones and computers have become commonplace and often necessary, but do you really need every latest gadget or all the bells and whistles? Have you come to depend so much on these devices that if one malfunctions or is lost, you are lost as well? Before you buy any new equipment, evaluate whether it will really be useful or end up as a source of unnecessary stress; your evaluation should include the cost of purchasing the device as well as getting it repaired or replaced.
Another factor to remember in the Reduce category is multitasking. Do you really need to cook dinner, talk on your cell phone, and watch your kids all at the same time? You may be familiar with the studies showing that texting while driving or texting while walking is dangerous. Multitasking is a stressful (and potentially hazardous) situation. Try doing one thing at a time, as much as possible. If you are taking a walk, enjoy your surroundings and relax. Reduce your tasks and don't overload your circuits! It's even okay to not do anything once in a while—just take a few moments to be present, meditate, do deep breathing exercises, and be quiet (see chapter 5).
One of the most important ways to eliminate stress in your life is to practice good organizational skills, which includes organizing your time as well as your environment. People who are organized tend not to waste time looking for things or information: they have ready access. Many women discover that if they stop and think about it, the disorganization in their lives is a significant cause of stress. Once they begin to take stock and make changes, they discover they do have more time to get things done, and as a result some of the tension and stress is lifted from their lives.
One simple step you can take is to sit at your computer or take out paper and pen and write down how you spend your time each day. Are the events and tasks in your day organized in a way that is as stress-free as possible?
Some other examples include:
• Are your files organized in a way that allows you to find information easily? Or do you have duplicate files (e.g., five files marked "Car insurance" all filed in different places), stacks of items to be filed, or a catch-all file that desperately needs to be sorted?
• Is your work space, including your desk, computer, calendar, books, and any files, arranged in a way that allows you to be as efficient as possible?
• Do you know what's in your pantry and kitchen cabinets? When it's time to go grocery shopping or prepare a recipe, are your food items arranged in such a way that you know what you have and what you need to buy?
• When you have many errands to run, do you organize them in a way that maximizes your time? For example, you may have six stops to make in one day, and you could write them down or mentally organize them and the routes you will take to complete them so you make the most efficient use of your time.
• Are items in your house organized in ways that make finding them easy and thus not stressful? Are there central locations for important or often-used items such as keys to the cars and other things that require a key, cleaning supplies, batteries, lightbulbs, and medications? Hint: you might want to delegate the responsibility for establishing such locations or organizing them to your children or partner!
What are the most important things you need to do each day? Will the world stop turning if you don't pick up the dry cleaning or vacuum the living room, remember to buy coffee at the supermarket, or clean the bathtub on a particular day? Do you find yourself making promises to do things for others when you know (in the back of your mind) that you don't really have the time to do them but you don't say no? Again, the simple two-letter word "no" is all-important. Ask yourself: "Is this activity, task, or event a priority?" If not, then it may be time for you to say no, or at least put the activity on hold. If you take a moment to prioritize the demands and tasks in your life, then you can eliminate or at least reduce your stress.
You can use one or more of the DROP concepts to help you achieve your goal. Here are a few examples of how other women have used DROP.
Leslie, a forty-one-year-old mother of three, found it necessary to return to work full-time as a nurse's assistant when finances got tight and her husband was forced to take a pay cut. When Leslie analyzed her life circumstances, she identified several stressors that were taking a toll: (1) worries about finances, (2) her husband's anxiety about making less money (and feeling like "less of a man"), (3) her feelings of guilt because she wasn't able to spend as much quality time with her children, and (4) her inability to maintain her household as she had done before returning to work. On the positive side, she really enjoyed her job and working with patients.
As Leslie did an honest assessment of her needs, she decided her priority was to take steps to feel better about herself. "I know that sounds selfish," she said, "and I didn't even like to admit it, but I also know myself well enough to realize that if I feel good about what I'm accomplishing, then I am better able to tackle other challenging areas of my life." Leslie gets a sense of accomplishment when her household is running efficiently, but her job was making that goal impossible. She also knew that she liked to maintain as much control as possible over how things were done around the house.
So she utilized another part of the DROP approach. Leslie drew up a chart that delegated household chores and responsibilities among her children (ages six, nine, and ten), her husband, and herself. Each child is responsible for keeping his or her room neat and putting dirty clothes in the laundry room. Everyone shares responsibility for feeding, combing, and cleaning up after the cat on a rotating weekly schedule. Leslie still does most of the cooking, but her husband prepares and cleans up after two meals per week. Everyone has been shown how to properly load the dishwasher, although only Leslie and her husband can turn it on.
Leslie has even adapted some of the chores so that she can spend more time with her children. "Sorting and folding laundry is a ‘mommy and kids' activity," she says. "Some gardening chores are also family time, like raking leaves or weeding the garden."
"I know I have terrible time-management skills," complains Gayle, a fifty-one-year-old full-time advertising account executive who also is a licensed massage therapist. "I really try to manage my time and steal a few moments for myself to decompress from the stress in my life, but it just seems like time gets away from me. When I have a day off, I make plans to accomplish certain tasks, and then something happens and I don't get them done. The thing is, I know what I should do—meditate, prioritize, relax—and I just don't do it."
Gayle was experiencing physical symptoms of chronic stress, including daily headaches and stomach upset several times a week, and then she came down with the flu and became too ill to drag herself out of bed. Looking back at the situation, she realizes it was the best thing that could have happened to her.
"The flu knocked me out, and I was forced to stay in bed for nearly a week. So I had plenty of time to review what I was doing with my life, to assess and set my priorities, and come up with a better way to manage my work and my home life. I decided to practice a new word more often—‘no'—and even made my first big ‘no' decision while I was still stuck in bed. I had been asked to serve on a committee for a local social group, and I knew I didn't want to do it but hadn't had the courage to say no until then. I felt relieved after I made that call!"
To enjoy a balanced, healthful life, it's important to live with stress that keeps you motivated and excited about life while also learning how to manage, cope with, reduce, or eliminate stress that has the potential to be or is harmful. That is your challenge. But before you dive into ways to use the concepts of DROP in your life, let's look at what stress can do to you.
Copyright © 2013 by Lynn Sonberg