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It’s not “just stress” where your health is concerned

Monday, July 5, 2010 @ 02:07 PM
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Revealing your hidden stressors — the Women to Women Stress Audit

 

Question: which of the following can cause physical, emotional, or mental stress?

 

A.    Chronic pain
B. Inadequate diet
C. Allergies
D. Skimpy sleep
E. All of the above

B.      

Answer: E, of course!

 

As you can imagine, the lengthy list of possible stressors is getting longer due to our changing world and hectic, modern lifestyle habits. But it isn’t only challenging events and conditions that cause stress. It is also our perceptions about events or conditions that can set off the stress response with such gusto. This understanding of stress helps shed light on the incredible power that our minds have over our health and well-being.

 

When we perceive something as threatening — at least on some level — it triggers our stress response, a mechanism that is intended to temporarily help protect us from physical harm. If you perceive something as stressful, and that perception lasts and lasts, your body will continue to prepare for an emergency. It’s the ongoing “survival mode” status that can cause many unpleasant physical and emotional symptoms.

 

You should know that sometimes the greatest source of perceived stress can be your own personal story. Your emotional composition — which starts in utero before you are even born — can directly influence what your body interprets as stress. When something happens in your life that connects in some way to your history, it can generate an immediate stress response that is, in many ways, automatic. And you may not even be aware of it.

 

But while you can’t relive your childhood or change what happened when your mother was pregnant with you, you can begin to understand more about why something is particularly stressful for you. That makes it more likely that you will then be able to find ways to soothe your reactions to stress.

 

What happens to the human body during the three stages of stress?

 

It’s interesting to note that there was no universally accepted word for “stress” until 1936, when Canadian physician and researcher, Dr. Hans Selye, who had been studying the concept, identified the three universal stages of stress:

 

1.      Alarm — with the first whiff of possible danger, your body prepares for “fight or flight” by redirecting all energy from normal functioning into survival, pure and simple. At this point, the adrenal glands get the signal to produce and send out an initial surge of “stress hormones.” These hormones — including cortisol — tell your body to get ready for an emergency. Among other changes, your heart rate and blood pressure increase to help you flee if necessary.

 

 

2.      Resistance — if the perception of stress continues, your body enters a second stage that allows your hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands (the HPA axis or loop) to pulse out a more consistent supply of stress hormones. Stress hormone levels will remain high to help the body handle what it interprets as an ongoing threat to survival. This occurs even if the perceived stress is triggered by something that is not life-threatening, like a problem at work or a difficult relationship with a family member.

 

3. Exhaustion — if the perceived stress is unrelenting, your body eventually reaches a point when it can’t keep up with the ongoing physical demand of making and delivering high levels of hormones. The adrenal glands begin to give out. Other important functions — including those related to the immune system — are compromised and may begin to generate secondary problems. At this point, you’ve begun to notice symptoms and your overall health is affected.

 

After a stress event, your body wants to recover quickly and return to normal (homeostasis). But even if you may not be aware that it’s still going on, your body and mind can continue to perceive stress, long after the event is over and feelings of nervousness or tension have passed.

 

That perception can keep pushing the “on” button of your stress response, which can eventually force your body, and particularly your adrenal glands, into a state of fatigue or imbalance, and even exhaustion. The symptoms of adrenal imbalance are very disruptive and include fatigue, insomnia, weight gain, depression, hair loss, acne, food cravings, and more.

 

To your body, there is no such thing as “just stress”

 

Beyond the most apparent stress-creating events, such as job loss, serious injury or illness, physical or emotional abuse, neglect, or trauma, hidden stressors may also be lurking in your daily life. Even if you consider a worry or concern “minor” in comparison to the bigger, more overt types of stressors, these everyday bits and pieces of stress can still be destructive to your health and well-being.

 

“If you ask me what is the single most important key to longevity, I would have to say it is avoiding worry, stress, and tension. And if you didn’t ask me, I’d still have to say it.”

George Burns, 1896-1996
American comedian

 

We talk to many women who are experiencing the emotional and cognitive effects of stress — fuzzy thinking, forgetfulness, fatigue, and headaches. What we’ve noticed is that these women often blame themselves for these feelings, mistakenly believing that their symptoms are signs of weakness, rather than indications of an over-stressed life. But perceived stress is a very personal problem. What causes stress for you might not do the same for someone else.

 

Even low-grade worry and anxiety can keep your body’s stress response in high gear. In some ways “minor” stressors may be even more harmful because you’re often not aware of them. But these fragments of stress that you carry around every day may be causing symptoms and chipping away at your sense of emotional well-being.

 

Is it even possible to reduce stress in your life?

 

Revealing your own hidden sources of stress can help you determine if daily habits and patterns may be affecting your emotional health right now. Since perceived stress is highly individual, only you can identify the true sources of stress in your life. And it’s also up to you to take action to reduce, manage, or eliminate these everyday stressors.

 

Consider these ideas and practices to help lower the level of stress in your life:

 

  • Become aware of your expectations concerning other people in your life, as well as events and experiences. When you allow your expectations to be realistic, it’s less likely that you’ll be disappointed. That can help prevent stress in the first place.
  • Accept that there are many aspects of life that you cannot change, especially when it comes to other people. Practice letting go, mentally and emotionally, of things that are out of your control. (And it does take a lot of practice!)
  • Improve communication with family, coworkers, and friends to help reduce possible misunderstandings. The phrase “being on the same page” has become a cliché for a reason: when you share an understanding with another person, it can help your life run more smoothly.
  • Pay attention to any habits and patterns in your life that might feed stress and its effects. Sometimes we just get used to life as it is, and feel that our patterns are “etched in stone” and we can’t change them. But if we become more conscious of our routines and tendencies, we can often see more clearly how we can modify our habits in order to generate less stress.

Introducing the Women to Women Stress Audit to help identify hidden stressors in your life

 

We’ve created the Women to Women Stress Audit to help you become more aware of the worries and concerns that might be secretly causing you stress. Uncovering these stressors can be an enlightening experience that can help tamp down your emotional responses to stress. And it can open up new ways of thinking about how you live each day. You may even realize that you can completely eliminate certain stressors quickly.

 

While it’s impossible to get rid of all the stress in your life you can find ways to manage it more effectively and maybe even to use it to your advantage. Even Dr. Hans Selye — the man who coined the term “stress” —knew it was possible to turn stress around. He said, “Adopting the right attitude can convert a negative stress into a positive one.”

 

The Stress Audit is an opportunity to find out if certain ongoing, everyday tasks may cause you to carry around worry, concern, and stress without knowing it. Each of your responses on the audit will be assigned a number value and your “score” will be tallied at the end to help classify your level of stress.

 

Note: the audit is not intended to chart stress associated with severe past trauma, neglect, and abuse, all of which are usually obvious sources of stress. These often require professional help for healing and stress management.

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