The heat is on—and we’re feeling it. Some 72 percent of women age 45-plus believed we’d be experiencing less stress at this point in our lives, yet nearly half of us say we’re struggling with more now than five years ago. This news—the results of a recent Next Tribe survey—is confirmed by American Psychological Association (APA) data that finds stress on the rise for women overall and that we’re also more likely than men to suffer physical and emotional symptoms—including headache, upset stomach, and being brought to the brink of tears. Perhaps most troubling, notes the APA, is that although an overwhelming majority of us think it’s vital to manage stress, only 35 percent report success in our efforts to do so.
Walloped by worry as we may be, we’re still smart, sensible women—and we want solutions. Ahead, the top six questions that Next Tribe Stress Survey participants asked about the causes of, repercussions from, and common-sense cures for what really stresses us out the most.
Question 1: What is chronic stress? How can I tell if that’s my problem—and what can I do about it?
Answer: There’s acute stress, which motivates us to think and act fast when an unexpected crisis erupts at work or some jerk cuts us off on the road—and thank goodness for it. Then there’s chronic stress, which sucks. “Chronic stress is a generalized response to a challenge that persists or repeats beyond our capacity to deal with it,” says certified stress mastery educator Cynthia Ackrill, MD, PCC.
Breath work sends extra oxygen to the brain, calming your mind and body.
While we’re wired to handle acute stress quite well—the fight-or-flight response kicks in, an adrenaline rush makes us react, and then we recover—chronic stress is a demand/capacity mismatch. “It may start with an adrenaline reaction, but then cortisol—a more slowly released chemical commonly known as the stress hormone—is activated,” Ackrill explains. “We perceive chronic stress when we feel like we haven’t got what it takes to handle what’s in front of us.”
Fortunately, there’s a variety of management techniques for chronic stress. The simplest and most immediate, experts agree, is a regular practice of breath work, which sends extra oxygen to your brain, calming your mind and body: Take a long, deep breath down to the bottom of your lungs (your belly should poke out), pause briefly, and exhale slowly. Repeat five times and do three times daily—and whenever stress feels intense. (Read on for more in our sidebar, “11 Strategies for Beating Chronic Stress.”)
Question 2: Are some people more prone to stress than others? Is stress inherited?
Answer: Some 15 percent of the population may be genetically more sensitive to stress according to Ackrill, but it’s what our parents teach us, especially in early childhood, that more critically shapes our ability to cope. “The stories we hear and the behavior we witness regarding stress determine our unique stress lens (how we view the world) and stress signature (how we experience stress),” she says. “Do we become emotional or shut down? Get a migraine or get irritable? Learning more about your particular relationship with stress is the first step toward stress mastery.”
Question 3: How can I stop stress when I feel it coming on? What about when it keeps me from falling asleep at night or wakes me up at 4:00 a.m.?
Answer: There are some situations when stress may be nipped in the bud. For one, the kind that escalates during traffic jams and long waits in the doctor’s office. For another, the way we might absorb the anxiety of others—a side-effect of women’s innate caretaker tendencies. In these cases, maintaining perspective is key and can help you keep stress from escalating. “Understand what you can and can’t control,” Ackrill suggests. “Have mantra like, ‘Not my circus, not my monkeys,’ to keep your focus on what matters.”
Also, one area where we do have control is our ability to say no, Ackrill points out. If “yes” is automatic to requests for everything from last-minute babysitting to financial favors, “no” can be a huge relief—and a way of saying “yes” to yourself and a less-stressed life.
Now, about that nighttime stress: It strikes when all those “what if?” and “I gotta” and “how will I?” worries start circling. “These issues hit after we’ve been busy all day,” says Rockville-based psychologist Mary Alvord, PhD, author of Relaxation and Wellness Techniques: Mastering the Mind-Body Connection. “Rather than relaxing and winding down, our minds can start spinning, which makes it hard to fall asleep.”
Ask yourself, ‘What would I tell a friend in the same situation?’
Alvord recommends keeping a nightstand note pad (not an electronic device; its blue lights can disturb sleep) handy and writing about what’s on your mind. It needn’t be Shakespeare; a 2017 study conducted at Baylor University’s Sleep Neuroscience and Cognition Laboratory found that simply composing a bedtime “to-do” list can be a sleep aid. One example: “Challenge ‘what ifs?’ with reality,” she says. “Ask, ‘What’s the worst that can happen? How likely is it to happen? Can I handle it? What would I tell my friend in the same situation?’ That last question is powerful, as we would want to provide our friends with realistic rather than catastrophic thoughts.”
Question 4: Is there a link between stress and my metabolism? Can worry make me gain weight?
Answer: Yes—and, alas, yes. One reason dates back to our cave-dwelling ancestors. “When we’re under stress, our metabolism slows down in preparation for the possibility of starvation,” says Ackrill. Increased cortisol can also interfere with other hormone-regulation systems, including that for satiety, so we don’t feel full when technically we are. And, finally, “Stress hijacks blood flow from your frontal lobe, the part of your brain that makes decisions, so you grab a candy bar instead of a salad,” Ackrill says.
Another glass of wine is not a wise coping mechanism.
There are ways to outsmart weight-gain land mines, but they take some effort. “Become more intentional, planning your meals—whether it’s packing a nutritious lunch for a busy day at the office or considering in advance what you’ll order when dining out,” says clinical health psychologist Helen L. Coons, PhD, associate professor and clinical director, Women’s Behavioral Health and Wellness Service Line, Department of Psychiatry, at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.
“Avoid skipping meals, so you won’t be so starving and reach for whatever junk food is at hand. And remember to navigate your real needs when well-meaning people say, ‘You look like you could use a cookie!’ or ‘Let’s get one more round.’ Another glass of wine is not a wise coping mechanism when under stress.”
Question 5: What other physiological problems can stress contribute to or exacerbate? Am I worrying my way toward a heart attack or stroke?
Answer: “When our bodies are healthy, there’s a natural rhythm between the sympathetic nervous system that revs us up and the ‘rest and digest’ parasympathetic system that lets our cells be nourished and repaired. When these are out of balance, everything suffers,” says Ackrill, who contends that 75 to 90 percent of doctors’ visits are somehow stress related.
As to the well-established link between stress and heart disease, according to the APA, the risk may be greater for post-menopausal women because of the role estrogen plays in helping blood vessels respond optimally during periods of stress.
And the negative impact stress has on the immune system may play a role in the development of dementia, according to a study funded by Alzheimer’s Society. “Our investigations show that stress does appear to have an effect on progression in mild cognitive impairment,” says lead researcher Clive Holmes.
Question 6: What psychological problems can stress contribute to or exacerbate?
Answer: Not surprisingly, stress is closely linked to anxiety disorder, a condition where fear and anxiety are out of proportion to the situation and hinder the ability to function. Anxiety disorder may interfere with concentration and sleep and have such physical symptoms as increased heart rate and sweating.
Stress is also linked to depression, due in part to how it can contribute to a reduction in the levels of feel-good serotonin and dopamine in the brain. “If you’re concerned that your mood is out of balance or your memory is affected, see your health provider,” Ackrill advises. Finding out what’s really going on with you and discussing treatment options should reduce your stress.
11 Strategies for Beating Chronic Stress
If chronic stress is wearing you down, do something! “When we’re under chronic stress is when we most need to practice self-care, yet, unfortunately, that’s often the first thing we neglect,” says clinical health psychologist Helen L. Coons, PhD, reminding us that, “Self-care is self-respect, not selfishness.” Consider the strategies below and be open-minded. “Get creative and find what works for you,” says Coons. And above all, breathe!
1. Establish rituals to renew. “Start the day with something positive, like affirmations, and end the day with something positive, such as gratitude,” says Ackrill.
2. Check in regularly. Ask yourself periodically: How is my energy, physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually? What do I need right now? “Questioning in general shifts you into curiosity mode, and out of stressful states like reactivity or judgment,” says Ackrill. “Specifically, building better awareness of your energy levels lets you adjust and replenish as you go through the day.” Fairly quickly, you can give yourself what you require—a big glass of water, a few good stretches, a reminder that you’re doing your best.
3. Minimize multitasking. You may believe you’re getting more done so that you’ll eventually have a chance to relax, but multitasking leads to increased cortisol secretion. “Less is more when coping with chronic stress,” says Coons. “When we’re overwhelmed, we’re not at our best—our concentration and focus, recall of information, and ability to complete tasks efficiently are thrown off.” We’re better off getting one thing done well than freaking out over everything.
4. Don’t cheat yourself. If you were too swamped to sign up for a favorite exercise class, don’t let the opportunity for stress-busting activity go by—take a long walk instead. If you’d been planning to leave the office at lunchtime but your colleague desperately needs to brainstorm, grab a pad and have your meeting in the closest park.
5. Ask for help. It’s not a sign of weakness to ask your spouse to pitch in getting the backyard ready for the barbecue, your co-worker to proofread your report, or your sister to come shopping with you for a high-school reunion outfit. “Somehow we have made it shameful to need anything, and when you are stressed there’s a temptation to withdraw or compare yourself unfavorably to others,” says Ackrill, advising we get over it! “Life is a team sport and people enjoy helping each other out.”
6. Practice self-compassion. Be kind to yourself. See Kristen Neff’s TED Talk for inspiration.
7. Practice mini-mindfulness. Focus on an object for three to five minutes. Notice the colors, shapes, textures, smells, sounds, feel. “Do not judge, just notice,” says Alvord. “Let your mind be present.”
8. Take a visualization vacation. When stress has you in a twist, think of a place that brings you joy, imagine one you’d love to visit, or invent your own fantasy land. Create the entire scene—the ideal temperature, the soothing colors, the scents and sounds in the air. Are you alone, or do you have someone special with you?
9. Sing! We unintentionally hold or restrict our breath when under stress—something we cannot do that while singing. Belt out your favorite number in the shower, in the car, while house cleaning. Bonus points for dancing.
10. Talk it off. Chat with someone you love and trust to vent your stress or momentarily escape it by simply having a pleasant conversation about nothing important. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin in Madison studying the power of voice in times of stress discovered that when stressed-out children heard their mother’s voice, cortisol levels went down, feel-good hormone oxytocin kicked in, and the kids reported feeling better.
11. Distract yourself. “Women sometimes have trouble turning off our minds because we tend to ruminate so much,” says Coons. “Distraction is good for that.” Walk the dog, play with the cat, read a book, watch a silly movie. Enjoy!
A native Brooklynite, Nina Malkin has written for everyone from hoity-toity fashion magazines to trashy tabloids to the New York Times. She’s the author of six books, including the paranormal romance novel Swoon and the memoir An Unlikely Cat Lady: Feral Adventures in the Backyard Jungle.